IBM at Work on Hippocratic Database

By Matthew Hicks  |  Posted 2002-08-20 Print this article Print

Based on the Hippocratic oath, new database design takes consumer privacy into account in the way it stores and retrieves information.

IBM researchers are working on a new database design that takes consumer privacy into account in the way it stores and retrieves information. IBM Fellow Rakesh Agrawal this week is presenting the idea, called a Hippocratic database, at the Very Large Data Base 2002 conference in Hong Kong. The design is based on the Hippocratic oath that serves as the basis of doctor-patient relationships. The concept occurred to Agrawal while being challenged by his brother, who is a doctor, about the inability of technology like databases to take individuals privacy concerns into account. "More and more databases are keeping personal and private information, and we are sort of relying on databases for our day-to-day existence," said Agrawal, lead scientist on the project at the IBM Almaden Research Center, in San Jose, Calif. "If we dont treat it with respect, people are going to get hurt."
One tenet of the Hippocratic oath includes a statement on privacy that states, "… whatever I may see or hear … in the life of human beings … I will remain silent, holding such things to be unutterable." The Hippocratic database concept hinges on this principle.
Hippocratic databases would negotiate the privacy of information exchanged between a consumer or individual and companies. The database owner would have a policy built into the database about storage and retrieval of personal information, and the database donor would be able to accept or deny it. Each piece of data would have specifications of the database owners policies attached to it. The policy would specify the purpose for which information is collected, who can receive it, the length of time the data can be retained and those who are authorized to access it. The increased ubiquity of the Internet and use of databases for data mining in marketing have led to the need for database systems that limit the type of data stored, how it is used and how long it is stored, researchers say. At the same time, regulations such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 and the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999, along with tough European Union privacy laws, are forcing companies to take privacy more seriously. "Once companies start recognizing that this is going to be extremely important for the consumer and some companies start saying We respect your privacy, and we use databases that are Hippocratic, that might become a movement in itself and that might become a competitive advantage," Agrawal said. "At this stage, Im sort of saying that we need to create technology, and I think market forces and legal forces will take care of it." Already, IBM researchers in their lab have prototyped the Hippocratic database concept to work with the Platform for Privacy Preferences standard from the World Wide Web Consortium, which helps determine the information a Web site can collect. P3P allows a Web site to encode its data collection and use practices in XML in a way that can be compared to a users preferences. The standard itself doesnt include any way to enforce its policy, but the prototype allows for the database to programmatically check whether a site owners and a users preferences match, Agrawal said. Eventually this would also give the two parties the ability to negotiate the privacy policy terms, Agrawal said.

Matthew Hicks As an online reporter for, Matt Hicks covers the fast-changing developments in Internet technologies. His coverage includes the growing field of Web conferencing software and services. With eight years as a business and technology journalist, Matt has gained insight into the market strategies of IT vendors as well as the needs of enterprise IT managers. He joined Ziff Davis in 1999 as a staff writer for the former Strategies section of eWEEK, where he wrote in-depth features about corporate strategies for e-business and enterprise software. In 2002, he moved to the News department at the magazine as a senior writer specializing in coverage of database software and enterprise networking. Later that year Matt started a yearlong fellowship in Washington, DC, after being awarded an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellowship for Journalist. As a fellow, he spent nine months working on policy issues, including technology policy, in for a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He rejoined Ziff Davis in August 2003 as a reporter dedicated to online coverage for Along with Web conferencing, he follows search engines, Web browsers, speech technology and the Internet domain-naming system.

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