Helen Nissenbaum, associate professor in the Department of Culture and Communication at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education, has been awarded a $398,000 grant by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to help develop tools that will safeguard the privacy of information stored electronically in computers and networks.

Nissenbaum’s research is part of a $12.5-million, five-year project, “Sensitive Information in a Wired World,” which will be funded through NSF’s Information Technology Research (ITR) program. The ITR program encourages and stimulates innovative, high-risk and high-return multidisciplinary research that is intended to broaden the uses of information technology and address its impact. She will collaborate with research teams at Stanford, Yale, the University of New Mexico, and the Stevens Institute of Technology, the other universities participating in the project.

Nissenbaum, who also holds appointments in NYU’s Department of Computer Science and the Information Law Institute, conducts research in the social, political, and ethical dimensions of information and communications technologies.

“Because technical systems and devices can powerfully influence important political and moral ends,” Nissenbaum explained, “it is essential for a society with strong political and moral commitments to develop reliable multi-disciplinary methods for appraising technology, not only in narrow scientific and technical terms but also in terms of values. One such value, privacy, an enduring and difficult social issue associated with technologies of information, lies at the heart of this large collaborative effort.”

Alongside fellow researchers conducting scientific and technical research on creating, handling, and analyzing massive data sets, Nissenbaum will develop theoretical underpinnings for the concept of privacy, as well as why, how, and to what degree it should be protected in a democratic society. The goal is to create better data systems for legitimate users of information, such as law enforcement, the government census office, and others. Such systems, through good design, are intended to promote positive social ends without violating privacy rights.

Also participating in the project are representatives of technology companies, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Microsoft; user communities, Citigroup, National Institutes of Health, the Yale Center for Medical Informatics, the Census Bureau, and the U.S. Secret Service; as well as Washington, D.C.-based policy organizations, Center for Democracy and Technology and Electronic Privacy Information Center.

EDITOR’S NOTE The Steinhardt School of Education prepares students for careers in education, health and nursing, applied psychology, communications, and the arts and serves as a source of continuing education for working professionals who seek career advancement and enrichment. On the graduate level, specialized training is offered within the context of one of the country’s leading centers of research. The school is also a center for research and community service, especially committed to activities aimed at improving the urban environment.

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