McGill Alert / Alerte de McGill

Updated: Fri, 07/12/2024 - 12:16

McGill Alert. The downtown campus will remain partially closed through the evening of Monday, July 15. See the Campus Safety site for details.

Alerte de McGill. Le campus du centre-ville restera partiellement fermé jusqu’au lundi 15 juillet, en soirée. Complément d’information : Direction de la protection et de la prévention

Data mining: Helpful or harmful?

Exploring the benefits and dangers of big data

In today’s increasingly digital world, we now have an unprecedented level of access to online information. We can share information electronically in most aspects of our lives: Our health and financial records, studies and research data can now be collected, stored, and accessed via the Internet. There is no denying that most of us have benefited from these developments. But is there a downside to this convenience and efficiency?

Anyone who has downloaded medical results or submitted a loan application online will recognize the improved efficiency of digital processes over traditional, paper-based systems. However, while we may enjoy this increased convenience, we need to be aware of the potential risks that both organizations and individuals face when handling electronic data. 

For example, organizations in domains such as healthcare and emergency services strive to collect and process large quantities of meaningful data to identify trends and discover connections that will benefit the wider population – a process that is expedited through digital technology. Their challenge is how to amass enough material to advance their work, while protecting the privacy of this sensitive information. 

Do you know if your data has ever been misused?
Understanding the difference between data theft and oversharing personal information
Cybersecurity is the act of safeguarding our data and systems against attackers who want to steal our data and / or compromise our systems. We can mitigate this risk by installing firewalls and anti-virus software, using Two-factor authentication, and by not sharing our login credentials.
Data breaches occur when large amounts of sensitive information are exposed and/or stolen from platforms that store this data.
Do you read the Terms and Condition when you submit your data to an application? We must protect our data privacy when we willingly provide personal information online by ensuring that our information will be used only for the purposes specified by the application. One helpful way is to understand the terms and conditions under which our data will be used.

Here at McGill, an ongoing research project is promoting secure methods of collecting, sharing, and publishing data. 

Privacy-preserving data mining: Research by Professor Benjamin Fung, School of Information Studies 

Professor Fung is a Canada Research Chair in Data Mining for Cybersecurity. He has undertaken a research program to enhance privacy protection

Photo portrait of Professor Benjamin Fung
Professor Benjamin C.M. Fung
while facilitating data sharing. His work in privacy-protecting data publishing (PPDP) addresses security issues in its aim to enhance data sharing and data mining capabilities for healthcare and cybersecurity professionals. 

What is data mining?  

Data mining is the process of uncovering patterns and other valuable information from large data sets, or collections of data. Its success is dependent on the availability of high-quality data and effective information sharing.  

It is often a key component of many systems concerning business, national security, and monitoring and surveillance. Due to several high-profile incidents involving data mining (for example, the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal), the practice is widely viewed as a violation of privacy. By default, social media platforms often capture more information than needed, which they then share with third parties as indicated in their terms of use. 

Negative public perception and the resulting lack of trust have impeded the advancement of data mining technology. To overcome this obstacle, Professor Fung’s research on privacy-preserving data publishing focuses on the feasibility of anonymizing and publishing person-specific data for data mining without compromising the privacy of individuals.  


Privacy-preserving data publishing: Industry applications 


In collaboration with a health agency in Asia, Professor Fung’s team developed a set of data anonymization methods to remove information that would personally identify specific devices or individuals.  Stethoscope next to laptop computer

These processes efficiently anonymized large volumes of complex blood transfusion data from multiple hospitals while supporting effective data mining operations.  


Many network systems, such as those in mass transportation and car navigation, use sensory and location-aware devices. Sensory devices respond to input received from their environments, such as temperature and humidity (weather conditions), or proximity to objects and people; then they output this information in a human-readable format. Aerial photo of highway systemLocation-aware devices deliver information about a device’s physical location to another user or application.  

Although both types of devices yield tremendous opportunities for mining useful information, publishing raw data can reveal specific, sensitive information about devices and individuals. The PPDP research team studied the privacy threats associated with the publishing of this data and developed methods to anonymize the information.  


How to protect yourself from the risks of data mining  

The ongoing work of the PPDP ensures that privacy standards are upheld in data mining without diminishing the potential benefits of this technology.  

Unfortunately, not all data miners conduct their work responsibly or ethically. In some cases, the data you willingly provide to applications may be shared with third parties in ways that could violate your privacy. Therefore, it is important to safeguard our personal information and what we choose to share online.  

“In IT Services, data privacy and protection are a top concern. As such, we take steps to ensure that the applications used at McGill match our security standards. Cloud services and applications are vetted to ensure that safeguards are in place to protect the privacy and security of our data”. Alex Aragona, IT Infrastructure and Information Security (IIS)

For more information on the Cloud Acquisition process at McGill and how it protects our information, visit the Cloud Services webpage on the IT Services website.

Additional tips

Upcoming events about cybersecurity best practices

Join us in October 2022 for a special presentation by Professor Benjamin Fung. Find out more about potential cyber threats and how you can stay safe online by following cybersecurity best practices. This event will be part of Cybersecurity Awareness month. Watch for details!

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