Mission Statement

The Data Privacy Lab is a program in the Institute for Quantitative Social Science (IQSS) at Harvard University and offers thought leadership, research, and discussion on privacy and technology, working directly with researchers at IQSS and leveraging colleagues across Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Harvard Medical School, Harvard Law School, and MIT. The Lab started in 2001 at Carnegie Mellon University in the Heinz School of Public Policy and in 2002, moved to the School of Computer Science, where it operated until 2011 before relocating to Harvard. The Lab has had dramatic impact on privacy technology developments and policy. Latanya Sweeney founded the Lab and continues as its Director.

The mission of the Data Privacy Lab is:

  1. To conduct research on computational techniques and integrated policies for sharing information in such a way that privacy and confidentiality are maintained while the data remain practically useful;

  2. To conduct research that characterizes the nature and extent of data privacy problems as society becomes increasingly technically-empowered;

  3. To assess the impact of proposed practices, policies and regulations on data privacy problems;

  4. To work closely with industrial and government partners to explore the evolving space of data privacy problems and solutions; and,

  5. To transfer resulting technology and learned information into real-world applications and practice.

The overall objective of the Data Privacy Lab is to provide intellectual leadership to society in shaping the evolving relationship between technology and the legal right to or public expectation of privacy in the collection and sharing of data.

The Data Privacy Lab is inspired by the astonishing proliferation of public information made available on the Internet and by recent access to inexpensive, fast computers with large storage capacities. Most data holders do not even realize the jeopardy at which they place financial, medical, or national security information when they erroneously rely on existing or past security practices. Technology has eroded common protections, leaving the information vulnerable. In the past, a person seeking to reconstruct private information was limited to visiting disparate file rooms and engaging in the labor-intensive review of printed material in geographically distributed locations. Today, one can access voluminous worldwide public information using a standard handheld computer and ubiquitous network resources. Thus, from seemingly innocuous anonymous data and available public and semi-public information, one can draw an electronic image of a person or organization that is as identifying and personal as a fingerprint, even when the information contains no explicit identifiers, such as a name or phone number. However, one cannot seriously propose that all information with any links to sensitive information be suppressed. Society has developed an insatiable appetite for all kinds of detailed information for many worthy purposes, and modern systems tend to distribute information widely. A goal of the Data Privacy Lab is to inform on-going discussions and to assess and propose balanced approaches in which data can be shared but in which inferences about the identities of people and organizations contained in the released data cannot reliably be made. In this way, information that is practically useful can be shared freely with guarantees that it is sufficiently anonymous and declassified.

The Data Privacy Lab is unique and necessary because its cross-disciplinary perspective within an academic setting provides a vantage point for examining data privacy problems across different kinds of applications and data, including financial, economic, criminal, medical and genetic information, to name a few, in various socio-political settings. The Data Privacy Lab constructs balanced, integrated solutions across boundaries, weaving technology and policy together.

Related Data Privacy Lab links

Copyright © 2011. President and Fellows Harvard University.   |   IQSS   |    Data Privacy Lab   |    [info@dataprivacylab.org]