MIT launches new campus-wide data privacy-focused initiative

MIT Stata Center

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 is 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:

o   database systems

o   applied cryptography

o   AI and machine learning

o   data portability and new information architectures

o   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. 

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, CapitolOne 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 also spoke about how they plan to be involved with the initiative, discussing the importance of proactively addressing user concerns about data privacy.

“Trust and privacy are core to our business and mission, and we strive to provide consumers with transparency into and control over how their data is used,” said Bayan Bruss, Applied Research Director for Capital One’s Center for Machine Learning. “We’re excited to join this research initiative to further explore the changing regulatory and consumer landscape, and use the learnings to chart our course effectively.”

Peter B. Settel, Enterprise Chief Technology Officer of American Family Insurance, spoke about the need to reduce bias and equity in both software and security systems.

“Ethical data and AI, privacy and security are cornerstones of consumer trust, and inseparable from our goals,” said Settel. “We are encouraged by MIT CSAIL’s focus on the future of data, trust and privacy and are thrilled to join this new collaboration.”

Companies also stressed the benefits they see in being part of this initiative as not only assistance in navigating a changing policy landscape but also the development of technical tools to help manage the new policies, laws and regulations more efficiently. 

“MassMutual’s greatest priority in its collection and use of data is to value the individuals behind it,” said Adam Fox, Head of Data at MassMutual. “We look forward to collaborating with CSAIL to develop and implement robust governance and privacy frameworks to ensure the utmost protection for our policyowners and customers.”

Organizations interested in participating in the new initiative can visit the CSAIL Alliances Program site for more information.