ISSN 2330-717X

Technique Protects Privacy When Making Online Recommendations

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Algorithms recommend products while we shop online or suggest songs we might like as we listen to music on streaming apps.

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These algorithms work by using personal information like our past purchases and browsing history to generate tailored recommendations. The sensitive nature of such data makes preserving privacy extremely important, but existing methods for solving this problem rely on heavy cryptographic tools requiring enormous amounts of computation and bandwidth.

MIT researchers may have a better solution. They developed a privacy-preserving protocol that is so efficient it can run on a smartphone over a very slow network. Their technique safeguards personal data while ensuring recommendation results are accurate.

In addition to user privacy, their protocol minimizes the unauthorized transfer of information from the database, known as leakage, even if a malicious agent tries to trick a database into revealing secret information.

The new protocol could be especially useful in situations where data leaks could violate user privacy laws, like when a health care provider uses a patient’s medical history to search a database for other patients who had similar symptoms or when a company serves targeted advertisements to users under European privacy regulations.

“This is a really hard problem. We relied on a whole string of cryptographic and algorithmic tricks to arrive at our protocol,” says Sacha Servan-Schreiber, a graduate student in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and lead author of the paper that presents this new protocol.

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Servan-Schreiber wrote the paper with fellow CSAIL graduate student Simon Langowski and their advisor and senior author Srinivas Devadas, the Edwin Sibley Webster Professor of Electrical Engineering. The research will be presented at the IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy.

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