Dr. Sweeney’s main area of expertise is privacy research. She develops algorithms and technology that release data and allow it to be useful while protecting the identities of the subject of the data. “87 percent of the population of the United States can be uniquely identified by [only] their date of birth, gender and five-digit zip code,” explains Dr. Sweeney, who is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science, Technology and Policy and Director of the Laboratory for International Data Privacy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh (Sherman).
Websites often ask for seemingly harmless information and people don’t think twice about providing it, feeling that their identities will remain unknown. Dr. Sweeney says that people must be vigilant about protecting their privacy when taking advantage of the Internet. The focus of Dr. Sweeney’s research is to show how vulnerable people are when they submit personal information online and to give them ways to protect their personal data.
One of the fastest growing crimes in the United States is identity theft. To combat this problem, Dr. Sweeney developed a computer program called Identity Angel. “The idea was that there would be a guardian angel looking over people” (Hildner). This program figures out how much personal data is on the Internet and whether someone could use that information to fraudulently obtain a credit card. Most credit card companies only require an accurate name, address, date of birth, and social security number to obtain a credit card. Identity Angel showed that many people who posted their resumes online provided all the information necessary to obtain a false credit card. Dr. Sweeney recommends that you never include your Social Security number, date of birth, street address and even email address on your resume.
It was at Dana Hall that Dr. Sweeney encountered her first computer, a Wang word processor. She graduated in 1977 and went on to Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study computer science and electrical engineering. Dr. Sweeney left MIT due to discrimination by some of her professors and founded her own computer company, CESS Inc., where she was owner and president from 1981 to 1991. She went to Harvard University and completed her undergraduate degree, graduating cum laude in computer science in 1995. She then returned to MIT and received a masters in 1997 and doctorate in 2001 in computer science.
Dr. Sweeney has received many awards and honors. Her most recent are the Recognition Award for her work on k-anonymity from the 2004 Workshop on Privacy Enhancing Technologies in Toronto, Canada, and the Privacy Leadership Award from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association of Michigan in 2002. She was also the keynote speaker at the Pacific Symposium on Biocomputing in 2003. She has written nearly 30 refereed papers for journals and workshops and is also a member of numerous national and international committees. Somehow, Dr. Sweeney also finds time to write poetry! Visit her website to read her poetry and find out more details about Dr. Sweeney’s vital work.
Hildner, Vicki. “Why a Resume Could Bring a Job, But Also ID Theft: Identify Theft From Online Resumes on the Rise.” CBS News, Denver. (20 October 2005): 2 screens. 30 January 2006.
Latanya Sweeney, photograph. From http://lab.privacy.cs.cmu.edu/people/sweeney/.
Roth, Mark. “The Thinkers: Data Privacy Drives CMU Expert’s Work.” Post-gazette.com. (26 December 2005): 5 screens. 4 February 2006.
Sherman, Erik. “It Doesn’t Take Much to Make You Stand Out.” Harvard Extension School Alumni Bulletin. 35 (Fall 2001): 2 screens. 2 March 2006.
Sweeney, Latanya, Ph.D. Home page. Summer 2005. 4 February 2006. http://privacy.cs.cmu.edu/people/sweeney/index.html
Originally published as Person of the Week, May 15, 2006