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Research Abstracts - 2007
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Data-Purpose Algebra

Chris Hanson & Gerald Jay Sussman

Data is often encumbered by restrictions on the ways it may be used. These encumberances may be determined by statute, by contract, by custom, or by common decency. Some of these restrictions are intended to control the diffusion of the data, while others are intended to delimit the consequences of actions predicated on that data.

The allowable uses of data may be further restricted by the sender: "I am telling you this information in confidence. You may not use it to compete with me, and you may not give it to any of my competitors." Data may also be restricted by the receiver: "I don't want to know anything about this that I may not tell my wife."

Although the details may be quite involved, as data is passed from one individual or organization to another and combined with other data the restrictions on the uses to which it may be put are changed in ways that can often be formulated as algebraic expressions. These expressions describe how the restrictions on the use of a particular data item may be computed from the history of its transmission: the encumberances that are added or deleted at each step. A formalization of this process is a Data-Purpose Algebra description of the process.

The purpose of this project is to build systems that track the provenance of data, as it is transmitted, aggregated, and distilled, and to compute the allowable purposes for the use of these results at each step. This may be thought of as an end-to-end protocol for accounting for the use of the data.


[1] Harold Abelson and Gerald Jay Sussman with Julie Sussman. Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs. 2nd edition, MIT Press, ISBN 0-262-01553-0, (1996).

[2] Daniel J. Weitzner, Hal Abelson, Tim Berners-Lee, Chris Hanson, Jim Hendler, Lalana Kagal, Deborah McGuinness, Gerald Jay Sussman, and K. Krasnow Waterman. Transparent Accountable Data Mining: New Strategies for Privacy Protection. MIT CSAIL Technical Report MIT-CSAIL-TR-2006-007 (27 January 2006).

[3] Chris Hanson, Tim Berners-Lee, Lalana Kagal, Gerald Jay Sussman, Daniel Weitzner. Data-Purpose Algebra: Modeling Data Usage Policies. To appear in Proceedings of the 2007 IEEE Workshop on Policies for Distributed Systems and Networks, Bologna, Italy, June 2007.

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