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Security Thinking for Big Data

Security Objectives

  • Understand and reduce manageable risks
  • Prepare for problems and quickly recover from harm
  • Adapt our practices based on the changing context

Project Qualities


  • Obfuscation & opacity
  • Scales poorly
  • Causes harm
  • Dangerous feedback loops


  • Clarity & accountability
  • Designed for sustainability
  • Mitigates harm & offers redress
  • Adapts based on results & context

Security Questions to Ask of Your Big Data Project

Assess the Risk

  • What are our objectives, priorities, and assumptions?
  • What data & metadata do we have?
  • How sensitive is the data? How dangerous is the data? Is it replaceable?
  • How valuable is the data? To who?
  • What legal standards apply?
  • What rate of false positives are acceptable? False negatives?
  • What can’t we measure? What are we leaving out?
  • What tradeoffs are we making?

Modeling Threats

  • Have we codified biases, injustices, or faulty assumptions into our model?
  • Is there noise, malicious activity, or false information in our training data?
  • Are we using obfuscation to hide sloppy data, processes, or proxies?
  • Who will want access to the data? What will they try to get it?
  • How does our system fail? Safe? Secure? Fair?
  • Who or what makes the final decision in the model? Is there a safety lever?
  • Are the incentives we are creating aligned with our objectives?
  • Will abuse be possible for those who gain insider knowledge?

Implementing Defenses

  • How are we providing routine maintenance, updates, and cleanup?
  • How are we separating, storing, and transmitting information?
  • How do we determine permissions? Is it granular enough?
  • Are we generating logs & alerts to detect failures and misuse?
  • Are we routinely testing our models and systems for reliability and safety?
  • Do we have an end-of-life process for our systems and data?
  • Do we have a challenge, redress, and/or opt-out process?

Auditing Your Project

  • Can we validate how a specific decision was made?
  • Can we validate groupings, classifications, segmentation, etc.?
  • Can we validate our assumptions? Expected outcomes? Predictions?
  • What unintended consequences have we observed?
  • Has this created any perverse incentives? Feedback loops? Echo chambers?
  • How are people attempting to game the system? Are we catching them?
  • Have we used any proxies to get around legal challenges?
  • Is this funded at an appropriate level to keep it safe?

Reminder: Adapt based on the auditing results, and repeat the cycle for changes.

Additional Material

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