Latanya Sweeney

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Latanya Sweeney
Sweeney at a panel discussion in New York City, November 2017
Known fork-anonymity
Scientific career
InstitutionsHarvard University
Carnegie Mellon University
ThesisComputational Disclosure Control: Theory and Practice (2001)

Latanya Arvette Sweeney is an American computer scientist. She is the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and Technology at the Harvard Kennedy School and in the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University.[1] She is the founder and director of the Public Interest Tech Lab, founded in 2021 with a $3 million grant from the Ford Foundation as well as the Data Privacy Lab.[2][3] She is the current Faculty Dean in Currier House at Harvard.[4][5]

Sweeney is the former Chief Technologist of the Federal Trade Commission and Editor-in-Chief of Technology Science.[6][7][8] Her best known academic work is on the theory of k-anonymity, and she is credited with the observation that "87% of the U.S. population is uniquely identified by date of birth, gender, postal code".[9]


Sweeney graduated from Dana Hall Schools in Wellesley, Massachusetts, receiving her high school diploma in 1977. She delivered the valedictory at the graduation ceremony.[10]

She began her undergraduate work in computer science at MIT, but left to found a company. She completed her undergraduate degree in computer science at the Harvard University Extension School.[11] In 2001, Sweeney was awarded a Ph.D. in computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the first African American woman to do so.[12] Of this career move she has said, "I would do something that was really quite noteworthy, but there was nowhere to publish about it. You could get paid for it, but there was no way to say, 'You won’t believe what I just did!' The only way to get it was to go back to school."[13]


In 2001, Sweeney founded the Data Privacy Lab at Carnegie Mellon University. She was a member of the Program Committee for Modeling Decisions for Artificial Intelligence in 2005. In 2004, she founded the Journal of Privacy Technology, later becoming the editor-in-chief in 2006.[14] She is currently one of the faculty deans of Harvard's Currier House.[15]

Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)[edit]

In 1997, Sweeney conducted her first re-identification experiment wherein she successfully identified the then Governor of Massachusetts, Bill Weld, to his medical records using publicly accessible records.[16][17] Her results had a significant impact on privacy centered policy making including the health privacy legislation Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). However publication of the experiment was rejected twenty times. The several re-identification experiments she conducted after this were met with serious publication challenges as well. In fact, a court ruling in Southern Illinoisian v. Department of Public Health barred her from publication and sharing of her methods for a successful re-identification experiment.[18]

In her landmark article “Only You, Your Doctor, and Many Others May Know,”[19] Sweeney discussed her research project in which she was able to locate and match identities and personal health records through a number of methods. Such methods, as she explains in depth later on, include looking at public health records from hospitals and newspaper stories. Towards the end of the article, Sweeney touches upon the different approaches of how she analyzed and matched the data, either through using computer programs or human effort. She then makes the conclusion that new and improved methods of data sharing are necessary.[20]

Medical dataset de-anonymization[edit]

In 1998 Sweeney published a now famous example about data de-anonymization, demonstrating that a medical dataset that was in the public domain, can be used to identify individuals, regardless the removal of all explicit identifiers, when the medical dataset was combined with a public voter list. Sweeney found that 87% of the US population in a censorship dataset, can be identified by combining data attributes which are known as quasi-identifiers. [21]

Data Privacy Lab at Harvard[edit]

Since 2011, Sweeney's Data Privacy Lab at Harvard has been conducting research about data privacy. It intends to provide a cross-disciplinary perspective about privacy in the process of disseminating data.[22]

In 2021, Sweeney launched the Public Interest Technology Lab at Harvard's Harvard Kennedy School, housed in the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.[23][24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Latanya Sweeney". Harvard Kennedy School Faculty Profile. Retrieved 2021-06-21.
  2. ^ "People". Public Interest Tech Lab. Retrieved 2021-07-21.
  3. ^ "Humanizing Technology". Harvard Gazette. 23 June 2021. Retrieved 2021-07-22.
  4. ^ "Latanya Sweeney". Harvard Business School Digital Initiative. Retrieved 2019-11-12.
  5. ^ "Data Privacy Lab". Retrieved 2022-06-24.
  6. ^ "FTC Names Latanya Sweeney as Chief Technologist; Andrea Matwyshyn as Policy Advisor". Federal Trade Commission. November 18, 2013. Retrieved August 6, 2014.
  7. ^ "Hello world! | Federal Trade Commission". Retrieved 2016-03-22.
  8. ^ "About Us | Technology Science". Retrieved 2022-06-24.
  9. ^ L. Sweeney. "Simple Demographics Often Identify People Uniquely (Data Privacy Working Paper 3) Pittsburgh 2000" (PDF). Carnegie Mellon University. Retrieved 18 January 2014.
  10. ^ "Dr. Latanya Sweeney, Curriculum Vitae". Retrieved 2017-10-24.
  11. ^ "Biographical sketches of Latanya Sweeney". Data Privacy Lab, Harvard University. Retrieved 18 January 2014.
  12. ^ "New faculty deans appointed". Harvard Gazette. 9 May 2016. Retrieved 2016-06-06.
  13. ^ "Tech Pioneer Latanya Sweeney's Advice to her Younger Self". Ms. Magazine. 2019-09-04. Retrieved 22 July 2021.
  14. ^ "Biographical sketches of Latanya Sweeney, Ph.D." Retrieved 2017-10-24.
  15. ^ "New faculty deans appointed". Harvard Gazette. 9 May 2016. Retrieved 6 June 2016.
  16. ^ "Law, Ethics & Science of Re-identification Demonstrations". Petrie Flom Center at Harvard University. Retrieved 12 June 2021.
  17. ^ Paul Ohm (13 August 2009). "Broken Promises of Privacy: Responding to the Surprising Failure of Anonymization". UCLA Law Review. 57. 1701.
  18. ^ "No. 5-02-0836, The Southern Illinoisan v. Department of Public Health". Retrieved 2022-06-24.
  19. ^ Sweeney, Latanya. "Only You, Your Doctor, and Many Others May Know". Technology Science – via
  20. ^ Sweeney, Latanya (2015-09-29). "Only You, Your Doctor, and Many Others May Know". Technology Science.
  21. ^ Tianqing Zhu; Gang Li; Wanlei Zhou; Philip S. Yu (2017). Differential Privacy and Applications. Springer International Publishing. p. 2. ISBN 9783319620046.
  22. ^ Caroline Perry (18 October 2011). "You're not so anonymous". Harvard Gazette.
  23. ^ "New Public Interest Tech Lab". Shorenstein Center. 23 June 2021. Retrieved 24 November 2021.
  24. ^ "Public Interest Tech Lab". Techlab. Retrieved 24 June 2022.