Constructing machines that learn in the human sphere of experience and enlightenment has always fascinated me, even from my earliest years. How well I remember sitting in my third grade classroom, bored with the happenings in class, fantasizing about a black box that could learn and make connections about people and places as I could. My childhood dreams origin is distant in time, yet the drive to fulfill that dream is ever present in my life today, only now its grown into a passion a passion that has driven me to study the science of privacy. Learning privacy? Yes, privacy!
When someone voices the word privacy all kinds of images conjure about seclusion and ones personal affairs. Risk, danger, and even intimacy might be words associated with privacy, but learning is probably not in the top 100 associations for most people. What does learning the acquiring of knowledge of skill have to do with privacy? Everything!
When I speak of learning, I dont particularly mean Paperts Logo style of understanding how children learn through play. When I speak of learning, I dont particularly mean the Agrawal notion of mining through massive datasets to find statistically valid correlations. When I speak of learning, I dont particularly mean any of the constructs that computer scientists have found fascinating before. Instead I mean something like them all, but something very different too, something very pointed and directed at learning something about you, especially if you thought it could not be learned. I want to write algorithms and design systems and protocols that learn sensitive or strategic information across disparate or seemingly innocuous or unrelated information. When I learn something which someone thought could not be learned from data, Ive not only learned something, but I educated others about what could be learned in the process!
Here are some examples. Suppose you have a string of ACGs that constitute a persons DNA. Certainly, DNA is unique for each person, but can I tell you to whom that particular sequence belongs? Suppose you share the first or last few digits of a Social Security number (SSN), can I tell you demographics (residence and age) about the person to whom the SSN was issued? Suppose your friend is walking down a street in lower Manhattan picking his nose, can I be in Pittsburgh and see him when he does it, and if so, can I know its your friend doing it? An answer to each of these questions is yes. These are things we already know how to do (to some extent) [Genomic Privacy Project; SSNwatch; CameraWatch].