FlipSide: A few minutes with Jeff Jonas

Jeff Jonas is a distinguished engineer and chief scientist at IBM's Entity Analytics Group, a unit that IBM created after it acquired Jonas' company, Systems Research and Development, in 2005. Jonas invented software that makes data anonymous by converting it into a format that only a computer can read.

Jonas got into the software business early. At age 20, he had to declare bankruptcy, an experience that haunted him for 20 years, he said, until he could pay back his creditors.

What makes your software different from other data privacy software?

Jonas: The technique we are using allows us to anonymize identity information, like names and addresses, and after the data is anonymized to compare and determine when two people are the same person despite all the variability in identity data.

Usually one encrypts data to send to somebody else who has to decrypt it to use it. Ours is a technique that allows you to encrypt the data and do the analysis while it is encrypted. That's what is unique about it. Many people in the privacy community feel that this is better than some other ways of sharing sensitive data.

How could the government use your software to identify suspected terrorists without destroying the data privacy of law-abiding citizens?

Jonas: The government has a long list of people who shouldn't be in the United States who might be terrorists. It's a secret watch list. Let's say it has 100,000 names. The government is not going to issue 100,000 subpoenas.

The remedy for that problem was Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which enabled the government to ask not for a single record but for all the records in a file. That created a lot of tension for the privacy folks.

So our technique allows government to anonymize its list of bad guys and then a cruise line, say, to anonymize its customer list. Our technique allows you to compare the two lists and recognize that Billy the Kid and Willy the Old Guy are the same guy. Now the government can go and get two subpoenas for those two people. I don't want anybody thinking that with this you can get past the law. That's not what we're doing.

We're using standard cryptographic hashing algorithms that are widely known, like [Secure Hash Algorithm-1 and Message Digest 5], but we're using them in a novel way.

Does your software work with existing defense, intelligence, national security and FBI crime databases?

Jonas: We have a lot of government customers that use it with their existing systems.

What did you learn from going bankrupt at an early age?

Jonas: I went bankrupt when I was 20 years old, so I started my next company from my car. If you mention that, you should mention that about three years ago I tracked down everybody I could locate, and I paid them back at 3 percent compounded interest.

Having a business that went bad at a young age makes you want to keep your commitments. That became something I worked hard toward. I kept a folder of everybody I went bankrupt on, and I had it in every single desk right next to me for 20 years until I was able to pay everybody back.

— Florence Olsen

The Fed 100

Save the date for 28th annual Federal 100 Awards Gala.

Featured

  • computer network

    How Einstein changes the way government does business

    The Department of Commerce is revising its confidentiality agreement for statistical data survey respondents to reflect the fact that the Department of Homeland Security could see some of that data if it is captured by the Einstein system.

  • Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Army photo by Monica King. Jan. 26, 2017.

    Mattis mulls consolidation in IT, cyber

    In a Feb. 17 memo, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told senior leadership to establish teams to look for duplication across the armed services in business operations, including in IT and cybersecurity.

  • Image from Shutterstock.com

    DHS vague on rules for election aid, say states

    State election officials had more questions than answers after a Department of Homeland Security presentation on the designation of election systems as critical U.S. infrastructure.

  • Org Chart Stock Art - Shutterstock

    How the hiring freeze targets millennials

    The government desperately needs younger talent to replace an aging workforce, and experts say that a freeze on hiring doesn't help.

  • Shutterstock image: healthcare digital interface.

    VA moves ahead with homegrown scheduling IT

    The Department of Veterans Affairs will test an internally developed scheduling module at primary care sites nationwide to see if it's ready to service the entire agency.

  • Shutterstock images (honglouwawa & 0beron): Bitcoin image overlay replaced with a dollar sign on a hardware circuit.

    MGT Act poised for a comeback

    After missing in the last Congress, drafters of a bill to encourage cloud adoption are looking for a new plan.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group