South by Southwest (“SXSW”) Interactive kicked off last week, and Covington was there once again to cover privacy.  One panel of interest that we attended, entitled “Data (in)Security: MIT Scientists Tackle Privacy,” featured MIT professors Danny Weitzner, Ronald Rivest, and Sam Madden discussing their current research and related privacy issues.  All three hail from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (“CSAIL”), and Professor Weitzner is the former United States Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Internet Policy in the White House.

While Professor Rivest’s research focuses on cryptography more generally, all three touched on “Big Data” in connection with their current research.  Professor Rivest discussed projects focused on the ability to compute on encrypted data, and Professor Madden discussed societally beneficial uses of so-called Big Data analytics that have emerged out of his research.  Professor Weitzner discussed research focused on using Big Data analytics to make Big Data systems more accountable.  Specifically, he explained that his laboratory’s vision is to develop processing power that can look at how data is used and whether it used consistently with applicable internal rules.

Some themes that emerged from conversation among the panelists included the relationship between a functioning democracy and privacy, including the need to preserve the ability to have private communications electronically no less than the physical world.  Consistent with Professor Madden’s research on the societal benefits of Big Data, the panelists broadly recognized the value of Big Data, while at the same time expressing support for policies that address the misuse of data and other privacy risks.  As we previously reported, the White House just last month explored some of these potential misuses in its “Big Data and Differential Pricing” report.