Matching identities across databases, anonymously

From MIT Technology Review‘s’ “Blindfolding Big Brother, Sort of“:

In 1983, entrepreneur Jeff Jonas founded Systems Research and Development (SRD), a firm that provided software to identify people and determine who was in their circle of friends. In the early 1990s, the company moved to Las Vegas, where it worked on security software for casinos. Then, in January 2005, IBM acquired SRD and Jonas became chief scientist in the company’s Entity Analytic Solutions group.

His newest technology, which allows entities such as government agencies to match an individual found in one database to that same person in another database, is getting a lot of attention from governments, banks, health-care providers, and, of course, privacy advocates. Jonas claims that his technology is as good at protecting privacy as it as at finding important information. …

JJ: The technique that we have created allows the bank to anonymize its customer data. When I say “anonymize,” I mean it changes the name and address and date of birth, or whatever data they have about an identity, into a numeric value that is nonhuman readable and nonreversible. You can’t run the math backwards and compute from the anonymized value what the original input value was. …

Here’s the scenario: The government has a list of people we should never let into the country. It’s a secret. They don’t want people in other countries to know. And the government tends to not share this list with corporate America. Now, if you have a cruise line, you want to make sure you don’t have people getting on your boat who shouldn’t even be in the United States in the first place. Prior to the U.S. Patriot Act, the government couldn’t go and subpoena 100,000 records every day from every company. Usually, the government would have to go to a cruise line and have a subpoena for a record. Section 215 [of the Patriot Act] allows the government to go to a business entity and say, “We want all your records.” Now, the Fourth Amendment, which is “search and seizure,” has a legal test called “reasonable and particular.” Some might argue that if a government goes to a cruise line and says, “Give us all your data,” it is hard to envision that this would be reasonable and particular.

But what other solution do they have? There was no other solution. Our Anonymous Resolution technology would allow a government to take its secret list and anonymize it, allow a cruise line to anonymize their passenger list, and then when there’s a match it would tell the government: “record 123.” So they’d look it up and say, “My goodness, it’s Majed Moqed.” And it would tell them which record to subpoena from which organization. Now it’s back to reasonable and particular. ….

TR: How is this is based on earlier work you did for Las Vegas casinos?

JJ: The ability to figure out if two people are the same despite all the natural variability of how people express their identity is something we really got a good understanding of assisting the gaming industry. We also learned how people try to fabricate fake identities and how they try to evade systems. It was learning how to do that at high speed that opened the door to make this next thing possible. Had we not solved that in the 1990s, we would not have been able to conjure up a method to do anonymous resolution.