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White House, MIT in data privacy workshop

John Podesta was named to lead a general review of big-data and privacy practices.

SAUL LOEB /AFP Getty Images

John Podesta was named to lead a general review of big-data and privacy practices.

It might shock anyone familiar with the National Security Agency spying scandal, but the White House says it is worried about your privacy on the Web. Enough that some of the Obama administration's top officials will come to Cambridge next week to be schooled on safeguarding personal privacy — regardless of who is collecting it.

The administration selected the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to help it understand the privacy implications of big data, in which computers — deep inside the NSA or in the offices of Inc. — analyze massive collections of personal information to either uncover potential terror threats or figure out shopping habits.

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On Monday, the Cambridge center of computing brain power will host the first in a series of nationwide public workshops about privacy and data the Obama administration has scheduled as it rethinks privacy policies since the NSA surveillance practices became public last year.

The MIT program, dubbed “Big Data and Privacy: Advancing the State of the Art in Technology and Practice,” is not about the legality of the NSA surveillance program. It will take a much broader look at all the growing privacy issues around data analysis and collection, and what new techniques can be used to better safeguard personal information.

In addition to Obama administration officials, it will include academics, computing experts, industry leaders, privacy advocates, and NSA officials.

In a January speech about the NSA scandal, Obama appointed White House counselor John Podesta to lead a general review of big-data and privacy practices, so that the government “can continue to promote the free flow of information in ways that are consistent with both privacy and security.”

The White House reached out to MIT because of its work in the area of big data, said Daniel Weitzner, director of the Decentralized Information Group at MIT and a former US deputy chief technology officer for Internet policy in the White House.

The MIT program will take a broad look at all of the growing privacy issues surrounding the analysis and collection of personal data.

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Collecting and analyzing personal data with sophisticated software programs can have powerful results in many fields, Weitzner said. The challenge for MIT and the White House is to fully understand the implications of this new computing power.

“One of the things that people are gradually realizing is that privacy is not always synonymous with secrecy,” said Weitzner.

The government’s data collection practices will be only one part of the MIT and White House workshop. It will also discuss medical, mobile phone, and educational data. The White House plans on holding similar events at New York University and the University of California Berkeley.

Michael B. Farrell
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