US military wants to protect social media privacy

DARPA looks for better Internet anonimization technology

Military researchers are embarking on a project designed to provide social media users on Facebook or even Google for that matter, greater privacy.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) this week issued a call for information on how it can help develop technology to best protect the rich private details that are often available on social media sites.  Better anonymization algorithms and other technology to hide data seems to be a key component of what DARPA is looking to develop, though it notes:  Anonymization techniques for social network data can also be more challenging than those for relational data.

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"Massive amounts of social network data are being collected for military, government and commercial purposes. In all three sectors, there is an ever growing need for the exchange or publication of this data for analysis and scientific research activities. However, this data is rich in private details about individuals whose privacy must be protected and great care must be taken to do so. A major technical challenge for social network data exchange and publication is the simultaneous preservation of data privacy and security on the one hand and information utility on the other," DARPA stated.

In Congressional testimony this week the FBI has talked about how users on social networking accounts such as Facebook and MySpace are ripe for cyber crime and that such crimes using those network has been rapidly increasing. "The surge in the use of social networking sites over the past two years, has given cyber thieves and child predators new, highly effective avenues to take advantage of unsuspecting users," said  Gordon Snow, Assistant Director of the FBI's Cyber Division.

DARPA notes that the while there has been a lot of work on privacy preservation in the exchange and publication of relational data, much of this work cannot be directly applied to social networks. "Privacy preservation is a greater challenge in several ways. Modeling the attacks on privacy as well as the background knowledge used by perpetrators of these attacks is more complex. In the case of relational data, a set of attributes serves as a quasi-identifier used to associate data from multiple tables. Attacks are usually based on identifying individuals using these quasi-identifiers," DARPA stated.

DARPA is requesting white papers that relate to the privacy-preserving publication of social network data and wants answers to the following questions:

  • How do we specify elements of information that must remain private?
  • What properties must an anonymized network have to ensure that those elements remain private and how do we demonstrate that?
  • How do we express knowledge that adversaries can use to defeat anonymization?
  • What assumptions can we make about the nature and extent of that knowledge?
  • How do adversaries use that knowledge?
  • How do we transform a network so that a given privacy model is satisfied?
  • How do we define and compute metric(s) that indicate the degree to which the transformed network satisfies the privacy model (particularly with consideration of an adversary's background knowledge)?
  • How do we define and compute metrics for measuring the utility of anonymized data when the purpose for which the data will be used is known in advance/the purpose for which the data will be used is not known in advance?

DARPA stated that the Executive Branch of the United States Government has been proactive in developing policies and procedures for safeguarding personally identifiable information, defined as "information which can be used to distinguish or trace an individual's identity, such as their name, social security number, biometric records, etc. alone, or when combined with other personal or identifying information which is linked or linkable to a specific individual, such as date and place of birth, mother's maiden name, etc." The Department of Defense has also worked to preserve the confidentiality of the personally identifiable information of Service members and the civilian workforce .

DARPA is planning a workshop September 27-28, 2010 in Arlington, VA to discuss the project.

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