Data Privacy Lab  

Harvard University

The Politics of Personal Data

Gov 1430

Professor: Latanya Sweeney, Ph.D. (email)
Lectures, Labs: Tuesdays and Thursdays, 10:00-11:30pm, CGIS K-107
Office Hours: 4-6pm on Tuesdays, CGIS Knafel 310

Home | Schedule | Syllabus


This course examines legal, political, social, commercial and technical struggles for control of personal data in our globally connected data-rich world. Case studies include data sharing mandated by the state, traded for personal services, and controlled by individuals. Analyses demonstrate ways to think about clashes and the interplay between technology design, data opportunities, and policy. The course includes a hands-on data lab component that is accessible to all students willing to experiment with new technologies and participate in class discussions and activities.

Examples of emerging technologies examined in the course include: face recognition software, biometrics, survillance systems, personal information capturing tools and position location technology (GPS, mobile phones, RFID tags). The course draws on topics from: data mining, information retrieval, web technology, computer security, cryptography, economics, business, political philosophy and current events.

There is no required textbook for this course. Instead, we will provide any course handouts on this, the course web site.


The course is divided into 6 units. Each unit has a lab assignment, which basically makes an assignment due every other week (see the course schedule for the exact dates of labs and lab presentations). The labs engage you in a variety of diverse activities. Examples include: surveys, statistical analysis, database manipulations, image analysis, web searching, and more.

You are responsible for your work. However, working with and sharing ideas with other students in the course is strongly encouraged. Most lab activities are group activities, requiring you to collaborate and work with other students in different capacities. Lab activities done in a group tend to have a single report from the group, and in these cases, all members of the group get the grade of the group report.


Data processing. You should be comfortable manipulating data in a spreadsheet program (e.g., Excel). You should also be comfortable writing simple programs in some programming or scripting language. Programming is not a requirement for taking the course, but being able to program may expand the range of activities you might enjoy pursuing in lab activities.

Communication skills. You should be able to express yourself verbally and in writing.

Internet skills. You should be familiar with basic Internet tools such as web searching, and sending and receiving email messages. Familiarity with database-backed websites is helpful, but not necessary.


You must complete a project at the end of the semester. The project constitutes a significant part of your grade. We will do special assignments during the semester to help insure progress on your project. At the end of the semester, we will host a campus exhibition of your project in a Student Fair. You must be present and exhibit your project. The overall grade for your project is broken down into: a project specific assignment, a presentation, a poster, and a project report.


Your final grade in this course is based on:

  1. 20% Class participation (in-class activities and labs)
  2. 30% Lab assignments (write-ups and presentations)
  3. 50% Project (Assignments, Project Fair, Report)

Collaboration Permitted in Written Work

Discussion and the exchange of ideas are essential to academic work. For assignments in this course, you are encouraged to consult with your classmates on the choice of paper topics and to share sources. You may find it useful to discuss your chosen topic with your peers, particularly if you are working on the same topic as a classmate. However, you should ensure that any written work you submit for evaluation is the result of your own research and writing and that it reflects your own approach to the topic. You must also adhere to standard citation practices in this discipline and properly cite any books, articles, websites, lectures, etc. that have helped you with your work. If you received any help with your writing (feedback on drafts, etc), you must also acknowledge this assistance.

Group projects are the work of the entire group, and you will need to collaborate on group projects. However, you should follow the same procedures as you follow for individual work with members of the other groups-- you can talk with and discuss your work with other groups, but the group product should be the work of only the group members.

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