Recognizing the power of big data to transform our society, MIT is committed to advancing the state of the art in big data science, computational platforms, and analytics, and to understanding and addressing the privacy risks associated with these new technologies.


“Big Data Privacy: Advancing the State of the Art in Technology and Practice” was co-hosted by MIT and the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP). The workshop, co-organized by the MIT Big Data Initiative at CSAIL and the MIT Information Policy Project, convened key stakeholders and thought leaders from across academia, government, industry, and civil society for a thoughtful dialogue on the future role of technology in protecting and managing privacy.

Data is a valuable asset for research, public benefit, and innovation, but the collection and sharing of data must be done in consideration of the potential impacts on personal privacy. Advances in computer science, as well as thoughtful practices and policies for how we manage data throughout its lifecycle, are necessary to achieve this goal. MIT’s workshop concentrated on core technical challenges associated with big data applications by providing a theoretical grounding for privacy considerations in large-scale information systems. A wide variety of privacy-protecting technologies that may be applied to big data applications were explored.

This workshop was one of a series of events being held across the country in response to President Obama’s call to review privacy issues in the context of increased digital information and the computing power to process it. As President Obama has said:

“I have also asked my Counselor, John Podesta, to lead a comprehensive review of big data and privacy. This group will consist of government officials who—along with the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology—will reach out to privacy experts, technologists and business leaders, and look at how the challenges inherent in big data are being confronted by both the public and private sectors; whether we can forge international norms on how to manage this data; and how we can continue to promote the free flow of information in ways that are consistent with both privacy and security.”

The MIT workshop on March 3, 2014, was the first of three that the White House OSTP co-hosted on the topic in the early spring of 2014. The others, to be hosted at UC Berkeley and NYU, will focus on legal, policy, and ethical issues.

The MIT workshop was open to the public.


MIT Big Data Initiative at CSAIL hosted the first workshop on “Big Data Privacy: Exploring the Future Role of Technology in Protecting Privacy” on June 19, 2013.

Download the summary report.


Recent interest in big data arises from the convergence of several major technology trends, including the pervasiveness of data (the digitization of information via web, social media, medical records, etc); the availability of inexpensive sensors, including location-based devices; and the decreasing cost of computation and data storage. The ability to collect, analyze, and report on massive amounts of data is now possible for institutions of all sizes. This leads us to new challenges related to managing privacy.

The goal of this workshop series on Big Data and Privacy is to invite industry, government, and academic leaders to discuss these complex challenges and potential solutions. We are motivated to host this series because big data has such potential to improve lives and address major societal issues, but it is also complicated by ethical, societal, and technical issues related to mitigating the privacy risks of data.

New technologies will enable better ways to manage, protect, and secure data in the future, from new de-identification techniques to advanced encryption methods. There is no silver bullet that solves all privacy challenges: each method has its advantages and disadvantages. Additionally, different applications require different levels of privacy, depending on the type of data and how it is used.

In the June 2013 workshop, we discussed a number of methods for managing privacy, including: secure multi-party computation (SMPC); differential privacy; accountable systems; novel de-identification techniques; and encryption. Solutions to managing privacy are not purely technical, as big data raises serious legal, policy, and ethical questions that remain unanswered. We must develop the right mix of technology and public policy approaches and bring key stakeholders to the table to have an open dialogue on the different solution paths.

As a follow-on to the June 2013 workshop, MIT launched a Big Data Privacy Working Group to continue the dialogue, to explore and learn about different technology solutions to managing privacy, to understand policy requirements, and to frame future research needs.