Data, Data Everywhere

Identity theft. Hacked accounts. Cyber attacks. Data breaches.
Office Hours

In a world that’s increasingly dependent on the constant, fast, secure exchange of digital information, threats to cybersecurity are also on the rise—both in reality and the public consciousness.

Li Xiong, Winship Distinguished Research Associate Professor in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science and its Department of Biomedical Informatics, has been working on data privacy and security for more than a decade, inventing new ways of enjoying the advantages of “data everywhere” while still maintaining personal safeguards. Xiong directs Emory College’s Assured Information Management and Sharing research lab, focused on cybersecurity issues.

“The smartphone has introduced an entirely new dimension to the notion of big data,” Xiong says. “Now, vast amounts of data are being generated by your smartphone—and are being collected by various entities. Your location and movement patterns, sentiments that you Tweeted or Instagrammed, and your health data from Fitbits, sleep cycle apps, and calorie counters are gathered on a minute-by-minute basis.”

All this data, Xiong points out, carries the potential for immense societal and personal benefit. For instance, analysis of cellphone call records can anticipate and warn users before they come into contact with a communicable condition, like the flu. More commonly understood is the value of location data; by providing GPS coordinates, you can receive suggestions on driving routes and nearby restaurants, reports on traffic congestion, real-time danger alerts, and more. The downside is the disclosure of your whereabouts, which could compromise personal safety or property.

Xiong and her research team are creating techniques to permit safe, privacy-preserving sharing of personal data for social good—with a focus on the health care domain. Diagnostic and therapeutic advances are often based on patterns in similar individuals, since characteristics like age group, ethnicity, lifestyle, and genomic and environmental factors can determine both propensity to disease and response to medications. This “precision medicine” approach requires analysis of sensitive information from millions of people.

“My research has a strong human element,” Xiong says. “I want to aggregate your data in ways that protect your confidentiality and also benefit you and society as a whole. Basically, I want you to tell me everything about you, without telling me anything about you. It sounds impossible, but like most computer science problems, it’s really a matter of optimization.”

Four Tips for Staying Safe in Cyberspace

Use Common Sense. “Cybersecurity is vital to everyone because so much personal data is out there,” Xiong says. “Every single day, for almost everything that you do, data is being collected and stored somewhere digitally.” And the obvious attacks are still the most prevalent. Safeguard social security numbers and other personal data, choose strong and varied passwords, be alert to phishing scams (if it looks like one, it probably is), and limit your social media posts to friends.

Don’t Give Yourself Away. Configure your mobile phone to limit access to your location, albums, contacts, and calendar. Enable location services only in those apps that need them, when they need them, and turn off the GPS when it’s not in use. “Your location traces are collected and they can be used to build a profile of you,” Xiong says. “That profile could identify where you live and work, your movement patterns, and even your religious and political views.”

Keep Your Health to Yourself. Even your Fitbit reveals a lot about you. Resist the temptation to publish health data or check medical bills, and periodically review your health portal information for accuracy. “We're trying to design protocols that combine confidentiality with utility and ease of use,” Xiong says. “And instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, our project takes a patient-centered approach. We are focused on establishing data registries with formal privacy guarantees that are tailored to be useful while taking into account individual patient privacy preferences and risks.” Xiong’s lab recently received a $1.06 million funding award from the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute.&#160

Mix It Up. Consider using pseudonyms and obfuscated birthdays and addresses when registering on online sites—and even then, provide as little information as possible. “I'm not very paranoid, but I'm probably more cautious than most people,” Xiong says.

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