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James Shea
IU School of Informatics and Computing

Last modified: Tuesday, August 2, 2011

IU privacy researchers recognized for identifying information leaks in genome studies

PET Award is second major security recognition for SOIC researchers since May

Aug. 2, 2011

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- An interdisciplinary team of researchers led by two Indiana University Bloomington School of Informatics and Computing (SOIC) professors has been recognized with one of the most prestigious privacy technology awards for the team's work in uncovering how the genetic identities of human participants can be uncovered from the results of genome-wide association studies.

XiaoFeng Wang and Haixu Tang

Haixu Tang, left, and XiaoFeng Wang.

Print-Quality Photo

The 2011 Award for Outstanding Research in Privacy Enhancing Technologies (the PET Award) was awarded to IU Associate Professors XiaoFeng Wang and Haixu Tang, along with graduate students Rui Wang, Yong Fuga Li and Xiaoyong Zhou, for their paper, "Learning our Identity and Disease from Research Papers: Information Leaks in Genome Wide Association Study." Genome-wide association studies look at all or most of the genes of different individuals of the same species to determine how genes vary from individual to individual.

On presenting the award sponsored by Microsoft and the Ontario Information and Privacy Commission, privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian said the protection of genetic information was currently a topic at the frontier of privacy research. Showing that someone possessing an individual's genetic information could potentially determine, with high probability, that the individual was part of a genome-based disease study demonstrated a basic conflict between the requirements of genomic research and privacy, she said.

"With emerging technologies growing rapidly in every area of our lives, leading-edge research into privacy is necessary to protect everyone's personal information," Cavoukian said. "I applaud the winners on their remarkable achievement and innovation."

Using multi-step statistical and integer-programming attacks, the team was able to show that both the individuals and their specific genetic backgrounds could be identified from a relatively small set of statistics that would routinely be published in genome-wide association studies (GWAS). These studies try to uncover associations between genetic variations, particularly in common diseases, and are seen as one of the most important approaches used in biomedical research.

In the two attacks, the researchers were able to determine the presence of an individual from the statistics related to a couple of hundred single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). They were also able to identify hundreds of participants' SNPs through analyzing published statistics. SNPs are variations in DNA sequences that occur when a nucleotide in the genome is different in the paired chromosomes of an individual or between members of the same species, hence their importance in research for making comparisons of the genome between, for example, two groups of study participants, one with a disease and one without.

"We found attacks can succeed even when the precision of the statistics is low and part of data is missing," Tang said. "We evaluated our attacks on the real human genomes and concluded that without the proper protections such threats are completely realistic."

School of Informatics and Computing Dean Bobby Schnabel said the recognition highlights one of the school's strengths: a research and learning environment that facilitates collaboration.

"This work between Professors Wang and Tang, experts in computer security and bioinformatics respectively, to produce this outstanding research on genome privacy underscores the importance of collaboration across research areas, which is a hallmark of the School of Informatics and Computing," Schnabel said. "The school is very proud of their award-winning accomplishments."

XiaoFeng Wang and his two Ph.D. students, Rui Wang and Kehuan Zhang, working with Shuo Chen, a Microsoft researcher, are also acknowledged as one of the two runner-up teams for the PET awards for their paper "Side-Channel Leaks in Web Applications: a Reality Today, a Challenge Tomorrow." The team, together with Shaz Qadeer, another Microsoft researcher, also won the Best Practical Paper at the 32nd annual Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Symposium on Security and Privacy this May, for their paper "How to Shop for Free Online -- Security Analysis of Cashier-as-a-Service Based Web Stores." That work received widespread attention from the mainstream media.

"This latest recognition demonstrates that we are among the leading groups in genome privacy research," XiaoFeng Wang said. "And it must be pointed out that we owe this success to the support from the school, which provides the research environment that makes highly interdisciplinary research possible."

Haixu Tang, a 2007 National Science Foundation CAREER Award winner and an IU Outstanding Junior Faculty Award winner, is an associate professor of informatics and computing, an adjunct associate professor in biology, and director of bioinformatics at IU's Center for Genomics and Bioinformatics. XiaoFeng Wang is an associate professor of informatics and computing, acting director of SOIC's Security Informatics Program and the Center for Security Informatics, and is an affiliated researcher at IU's Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research.

To speak with the researchers or for more information, please contact James Shea, director of planning and communications, IU Bloomington School of Informatics and Computing, at 812-856-6091 or