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Privacy Concerns Could Limit Benefits From Real-Time Data Analysis

By Carnegie Mellon News

December 21, 2009

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Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) computer scientist Tom M. Mitchell says society will be unable to capitalize on real-time data analysis technologies unless questions are resolved regarding how much of a person's life can be observed and by whom. Mitchell notes that data-mining techniques are increasingly being applied to personal activities, conversations, and movements, such as deducing people's movements and patterns by monitoring their smartphone. "The potential benefits of mining such data range from reducing traffic congestion and pollution, to limiting the spread of disease, to better using public resources such as parks, buses, and ambulance services," he says. "But risks to privacy from aggregating these data are on a scale that humans have never before faced."

Mitchell says technology could help limit the misuse of data. One potential approach is to mine data from numerous organizations without ever aggregating data into a central repository. For example, individual hospitals could analyze their medical records to see what treatments work best for a particular flu strain, and use cryptography to encode the results and protect patient privacy, releasing only the findings.

Mitchell says a public discussion about how to rewrite the rules of data collection, ownership, and privacy will be even more important than technological solutions. "Until these issues are resolved, they are likely to be the limiting factor in realizing the potential of these new data to advance our scientific understanding of society and human behavior, and to improve our daily lives," he says.

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