MIT launches new data privacy-focused initiative

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May 7, 2021

The new initiative will focus on topics such as database systems, applied cryptography, AI and machine learning, and human-computer interaction. Photo courtesy MIT CSAIl.

  MIT CSAIL

Strategic use of data is vital for progress in science, commerce, and even politics, but at the same time, citizens are demanding more responsible, respectful use of personal data. Internet users have never felt more helpless about how their data are being used: Surveys show that the vast majority of U.S. adults feel that they have little to no control over the data that the government and private companies collect about them. In response to these concerns, new privacy laws are being enacted in Europe, California, Virginia, and elsewhere around the world.

To conduct more-focused research and analysis of these issues, last week MIT launched a new initiative to bring state-of-the-art computer science research together with public policy expertise and engagement.

Launched on April 6, the MIT Future of Data, Trust, and Privacy initiative (FOD) will involve collaboration between experts specializing in five distinct technical areas:

  • database systems
  • applied cryptography
  • AI and machine learning
  • data portability and new information architectures; and
  • human-computer interaction.

In addition to technical research, FOD will provide forums for dialogue amongst MIT researchers, policymakers, and industry consortium members, with a structure similar to MIT’s 2019 AI Policy Congress, which included members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. 

Future of Data video

FOD is a collaboration between MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the MIT Internet Policy Research Initiative (IPRI). Co-director Daniel Weitzner is both a researcher at CSAIL and founding director of IPRI, and previously served as the White House deputy CTO under President Obama.

Weitzner says that one of the larger goals is to reduce the cycle time between the development of new policies and new software systems. He also hopes to work with industry to develop new privacy-preserving tools and to help steer conversations focused on “shaping the future of data governance.”

Founding member companies include American Family Insurance, Capital One, and MassMutual. Initiative Co-director Srini Devadas, a professor at MIT, says that the effort will draw on expertise across MIT in the fields of cryptography, machine learning, systems security, and public policy.

“The goal is to solve challenging problems of collaborative data analytics and machine learning where sharing data provides significant benefit to all participants, while also preserving strong privacy protections,” says Devadas.

At the launch event, CSAIL Director Daniela Rus cited MIT’s long history of work in the privacy space, from foundational work on cryptography, to IPRI and the Trust:Data Consortium, which has created tools and architectures that foster the development of a secure internet-based network of trusted data.

Member companies stressed the benefits they see in being part of this initiative as not only helping navigate a changing policy landscape but also developing technical tools to help manage the new policies, laws, and regulations more efficiently. Speaking at the launch were MassMutual’s Head of Data Adam Fox, Capital One’s Machine Learning Research Director Bayan Bruss, and American Family Insurance’s Enterprise Chief Data Officer Brad Burke.

Companies interested in participating in the new initiative can visit the CSAIL site for more information.