Monday, 19 May 2014

Foundations of Privacy - Another Idea

This got triggered by a post on LinkedIn about what a degree in privacy might contain. I've certainly thought about this before, at least in terms of software engineering, and even have a whole course that could be taken over a semester ready to go.

Aside: CMU has the "World's First Privacy Engineering Course": a Master of Science in Information Technology—Privacy Engineering (MSIT-PE) degree. So, close, but a major university here in Finland turned down the chance to create something similar a few years back...

That aside, I've been wondering about how to present they various levels of things we need to consider to properly define privacy and put it on strong foundations. Though in the guise of information theory we already have this, though admittedly Shannon's seminal work from the 1930's is maybe a little too deep. On the other hand understanding concepts such as channels, entropy are fundamental building blocks, so maybe they should be there along with privacy law - now that would make some course!

Even just sketching out areas to present and what might be contained about this, even if a linear map from morality to mathematics is too constraining?

There are missing bits - we still have a  semantic gap between the "legal world" and the "engineering world"; parts that I'm hoping that things such as the many conferences, academic works and books such as the excellent Privacy Engineer's Manifesto and Privacy Engineering will play a role in defining. Maybe the semantic gap goes away once we start looking at there even a semantic gap? 

However, imagine for a moment starting anywhere in this stack and working up and down and keeping everything linked together in the context of privacy and information security. Imagine seeing the link between EU privacy laws and type theory, or between the construction of policies and entropy, the algebra of HIPAA, a side course in homotopy type theory and privacy...maybe with that last one I'm getting carried away, but, this is exactly what we need to have in place.

Each layer provides the semantics to the layer above - what do our morals and ethics means in terms of formalised laws, what do laws mean in terms of policies, what do policies mean in terms of software engineering structures, and down to the core mathematics and algebras of information.

Privacy and privacy engineering in particular almost has everything: law, algebra, morals, ethics, semantics, policy, software, entropy, information, data, BigData, Semantic Web etc etc etc. Furthermore, we have links to areas such as security, cryptography, economic theory etc!

Aren't these the very things any practitioner of privacy (engineering) should know, or at least have knowledge of? Imagine if lawyers understood information theory and semantics, and, software engineers understood law? 

OK, so there might be various ways of putting this stack together, competing theories of privacy etc, but that would be the real beauty here - a complete theory of privacy from the core mathematics through physics, computation, type theory, software engineering, policies, law and even ethics and morals.

But again, no more naivety, no more terminological or ontological confusions, policies and laws being traceable right down to the computation structures and code. Quite a tall order, but such a course bringing all these together really would be wonderful...

And wouldn't that be something!

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