Pioneering the Future of Personal Data
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
All this week we've been talking about privacy and today we'll explore the future of your privacy. A scientist is making this simple prediction: personal information will be more available and will be more valuable tomorrow than it is today.
Renee Montagne spoke with the man who made that prediction.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And that would be Jeff Jonas. He's chief scientist at Entity Analytic Solutions at IBM and he joins me to talk about this. Good morning.
Mr. JEFF JONAS (Chief Scientist, Entity Analytic Solutions, IBM): Good morning.
MONTAGNE: So let's begin with what's troublesome about privacy protection and the technology that you're working on to make things more private for people.
Mr. JONAS: So organizations these days are compelled to share ever-growing amounts of data. And one of the things that I've been working on for four or five years now is the ability for organizations to anonymize the data, particularly the sensitive data about one's employees or customers.
MONTAGNE: Just quickly, I love that word: anonymize.
Mr. JONAS: It's like putting the data through a shredder. You can't run the shredder backwards and create the piece of paper. So instead of an organization exchanging my name and date of birth, address and Social Security number with another company or with the government, I've worked up this technique that allows organizations to shred or anonymize the data and exchange only the anonymized values.
MONTAGNE: To make this simple, could you give us an example?
Mr. JONAS: Okay, well, Renee, let's say you were going to take your family on a cruise. Well, today the government has a long list of people that we should never let into the country. But unfortunately they can't share that list with the cruise line because the list is sensitive. And that cruise line that you're going to go on, of course, doesn't want to send your data to the government because that doesn't seem like the right privacy thing to do.
Mr. JONAS: To send all the data using anonymization, the government can anonymize the multi-hundred thousand people we should never let into the country transfer that to the cruise line and they can't learn who those people are. And if there is a match, say two people a year, the government can subpoena just those two records.
MONTAGNE: I think I actually get that. You know, we heard about a privacy horror story earlier this week where a man's roommate was ready to use his stolen Social Security number. Could your products prevent the unauthorized use of this sort of, you know, gateway information, if it were stolen?
Mr. JONAS: No. I mean, if somebody steals the Social Security number, then there's no technology to prevent that.
MONTAGNE: None. Well, we also heard about public records available online. In fact, people putting personal information online in blogs. Is there anything that can be done to protect one's privacy when it's already online?
Mr. JONAS: Well, Renee, oddly, consumers just continue to choose to put more and more data out there. And you know, I do a few things myself to reduce that. When I move, I don't fill out a national change of address card with the postal service. When you do that, it instantly updates many thousands of companies, marketing databases, about where I now live. I'd just as soon tell the people where I live who are my friends or my creditors.
MONTAGNE: At the moment though, is there any way of making that invisible or getting it back?
Mr. JONAS: You ever heard the notion, when the toothpaste is out of the tube?
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONTAGNE: That's what I was afraid you were gonna say.
Mr. JONAS: Yeah, unfortunately, Renee, that's the truth. I used to, for fun, I was asked to speak, I would do something called Your Privacy in the Information Age and I'd have them give me, in advance, three or four people in the audience who they would just swear had a sense of humor.
I would gather up some information and then when I would go present, I would say, hey, let me give you an example. Well, pretty soon, you're saying, here's where you live; here's a picture from over the top of your house; here's how many bathrooms in your house; let me tell you about your neighbors. The amount of data out there is absolutely mind-boggling.
MONTAGNE: And did anybody laugh?
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONTAGNE: Did they have a sense of humor...
Mr. JONAS: A few...
MONTAGNE: ...about their own...
Mr. JONAS: ...a few. I would keep a close eye on them.
MONTAGNE: ...naked lives?
Mr. JONAS: When I said, yeah, and your doctor, they said, I don't have a doctor. And then I named the name of the doctor, they would just, I could see their eyes enlarge. I tried to make it as friendly as possible, but it certainly makes the point.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. JONAS: You're welcome.
MONTAGNE: Jeff Jonas is designing the next generation of privacy protection at IBM.
INSKEEP: There is nothing private about our discussions on privacy and you can find them all at NPR.org.