Skip to Content
77 Mass Ave

Who’s Using Your Data?

New Web technology would let you track how your private data is used online.
August 19, 2014

By now, most people trust the cryptographic schemes that protect online financial transactions, but inadvertent misuse of our data by people authorized to access it remains a pressing concern as more of it moves online.

Tim Berners-Lee, Oshani Seneviratne, SM ’09, and Lalana Kagal
Tim Berners-Lee, Oshani Seneviratne, SM ’09, and Lalana Kagal collaborated to develop HTTPA.

At the same time, tighter restrictions on access could undermine the whole point of sharing data. Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory believe the solution may be more transparency. To that end, they’re developing a protocol they call “HTTP with Accountability,” or HTTPA, which will automatically monitor the transmission of private data and allow the data owner to examine how it’s being used.

With HTTPA, remote access to a Web server would be controlled much the way it is now, through passwords and encryption. But every time the server transmitted a piece of sensitive data, it would also send a description of the restrictions on the data’s use. And it would log the transaction at multiple points across a network of encrypted, special-­purpose servers.

“It’s not that difficult to transform an existing website into an HTTPA-aware website,” says Oshani ­Seneviratne, SM ’09, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science who developed the protocol with her advisor, Tim Berners-Lee, and Lalana Kagal, a principal research scientist at CSAIL. “On every HTTP request, the server should say ‘Okay, here are the usage restrictions for this resource’ and log the transaction in the network of special-purpose servers.”

Seneviratne uses a technology known as distributed hash tables—the technology at the heart of peer-to-peer networks like BitTorrent—to distribute the transaction logs among the servers. Redundant storage of the same data on multiple servers ensures that if some servers go down, data will remain accessible. It also provides a way to detect data tampering: a server whose logs differ from those of its peers would be easy to ferret out.

To test the system, ­Seneviratne built a rudimentary health-care records system from scratch and filled it with data supplied by 25 volunteers. She then simulated a set of data transfers corresponding to events that the volunteers reported as having occurred over the course of a year—pharmacy visits, referrals to specialists, use of anonymized data for research purposes, and the like.

In experiments involving 300 servers on the experimental network PlanetLab, the system efficiently tracked down data stored across the network and handled the chains of inference necessary to audit its propagation among multiple providers. In practice, Seneviratne says, audit servers could be maintained by a grassroots network, much like the servers that host BitTorrent files or log Bitcoin transactions.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

Muhammad bin Salman funds anti-aging research
Muhammad bin Salman funds anti-aging research

Saudi Arabia plans to spend $1 billion a year discovering treatments to slow aging

The oil kingdom fears that its population is aging at an accelerated rate and hopes to test drugs to reverse the problem. First up might be the diabetes drug metformin.

Yann LeCun
Yann LeCun

Yann LeCun has a bold new vision for the future of AI

One of the godfathers of deep learning pulls together old ideas to sketch out a fresh path for AI, but raises as many questions as he answers.

images created by Google Imagen
images created by Google Imagen

The dark secret behind those cute AI-generated animal images

Google Brain has revealed its own image-making AI, called Imagen. But don't expect to see anything that isn't wholesome.

Europe's AI Act concept
Europe's AI Act concept

A quick guide to the most important AI law you’ve never heard of

The European Union is planning new legislation aimed at curbing the worst harms associated with artificial intelligence.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.