Openmined – opportunity and distruption of privacy infrastructure.

I recently became aware of openmined and its open-source community work to make privacy-preservation available through the world by lowering the barrier to entry to a number of technologies that support and solve the privacy/transparency tradeoff.

To learn more about openmined goals, messages and approach I have undertaken their “Our Privacy Opportunity” course which is a 7 hour, video led introduction and discussion of the privacy and more specifically issues around the privacy/transparency tradeoff which is a key aspect of the information world in which we all operate in the 21st century.

The course is a free course, with a syllabus that incrementally introduces a set of concepts that build a key understanding of the underlying basic issues (and opportunities of privacy) that are scattered throughout modern life.

Information Flow, the Privacy and Transparency dilemmas.

The course starts by clearly defining what is an information flow as its the basic construct upon which all other concepts are either build or operate upon. The next concepts it introduces are the “Privacy dilemma” and the Transparency Dilemma”.

Taking these three basic concepts it then builds them into the Privacy-Transparency Pareto frontier which is basically saying privacy and transparency are a ‘ying and yang’ that in varying levels are appropriate to constitute the makeup of an information flow, so in some cases there is no privacy attributes but full transparency while in other cases significant privacy attributes are required and present which limits the availability for aspects of transparency, while lastly there are situations with varying mixes of both privacy and transparency which are appropriate for the existence and use of the information flow.

A key attribute of the privacy/transparency tradeoff can be the multi-objective basis of some information flows, another take on this is that there can be a logical negation effect at play, where a stakeholder is focused on characterizing a situation using one attribute and is wholly focused on that attribute but when viewed from its logical negation the problem and solution are much clearer.

From the field of permaculture design, an crisp example of this type of behavior is as follows — a person complains to a permaculture designer that “their garden is overrun with slugs and they are eating all my vegetables”, where upon the permaculture design responds — ” it is not an excess of slugs that is your problem but a deficiency of ducks to bring your system back into balance”.

Privacy/Transparency Tradeoff.

In the privacy/transparency tradeoff, too much privacy and thinking that locking down data access is the solution to every problem but this can thwart societal benefits because transparency suffers as an example — a crooked politician will want access to data that may show their corruption to be completely made private while having appropriate transparent access benefits society and roots out corruption.

Examples of Information Flows.

The Course continues to provide concrete examples of the dynamics Information flows within:

  • Research and how it can be constrained by having the incorrect privacy/transparency design.
  • Market competitions for information flows.
  • Data, Energy and the Environment and how all these can benefit for better engineering of information flows.
  • Feedback mechanisms and how they interact with and within information flows.
  • and lastly how Democracy and public discourse can be more healthy and positive with appropriate information flows.

As well as discussing information flows and what incentives are appropriate or successful information flows for markets, the course provides concrete examples of safe data networks for business governance and R&D, how does an information flow relate to conflict and political science and the dynamics of good and bad information flow realization for disinformation.

A key tenant of the course is the society runs on information flows and having appropriate and correct information flows is essential and huge positive opportunity for society in general.

Although the information flow seems like a mythical perfect object the course continues to discuss a number of limitations of information flows including:

  • The Copy problem.
  • The Bundling problem.
  • The Recursive Enforcement problem.

Structural Transparency.

After the base concepts, benefits, problems and limitations of information flows had been introduced in the first portion of the course, the second half of the course begins to introduce how to introduce solutions to the privacy/transparency tradeoff where techniques and technologies can allow for enabling desired uses of information without also enabling misuse.

Structural transparency and its 5 components are introduced, these are:

  • Input Privacy.
  • Output Privacy.
  • Input Verification.
  • Output Verification.
  • Flow Governance.

Once the mental framework and associate technology tools of Structural Transparency has been presented, the course finishes with the impact that structured transparency can have across a number of domains including:

  • Academic Research and R&D
  • Consumers and the service providers that serve them.
  • News Media.
  • the growing set of instances of the use of machine learning.
  • Government, Intelligence, Statistics and Regulatory bodies.

In Summary

by undertaking this course, it provided me with:

  • A better understanding of privacy issues and more importantly a better framework to analyze, manipulate, specify and consider solutions within the Privacy AND transparency sphere.
  • A concrete set of examples that drive my understanding and also to educate others on privacy/transparency issues being discussed both as an individual and also in a professional capacity.
  • Insight into emerging tools and technology that will allow for the engineering, creation and modification of key information flows so that there capabilities are more full spectrum rather than being wholly privacy lock downs or near ‘public domain’ or wide open flows to allow for transparency.

In summary, I would wholeheartedly suggest to everybody to invest the time to at a minimum spend some time reviewing or taking this course and if there is more personal or profession interest further engage with the concepts, solutions, supporting technology and the openmined community itself.

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