September 01, 2006

First Came Antimatter

It’s been a while since I’ve had a good geeky post, so I thought I’d finally resume all geekiness with an article about “negative databases.” Few things are quite as good for a solid geeky-laugh as reading the following:

In the 1940s a philosopher called Carl Hempel showed that by manipulating the logical statement “all ravens are black”, you could derive the equivalent .all non-black objects are non-ravens…A number of computer scientists, led by Fernando Esponda of Yale University, are taking Hempel’s notion as the germ of an eminently practical scheme…The idea is to create a negative database. Instead of containing the information of interest, such a database would contain everything except that information.

It’s one of those ideas that is such a ridiculously backwards way of thinking that…it just might work.

Admittedly, though, I have a few doubts. The article goes on to suggest that such a database might be “safer” by preventing a hacker from gaining all the Social Security numbers of people living on one street. That makes sense enough, given that we are storing what their addresses are not. But, if we can actually associate Social Security numbers, one-by-one, with the correct address, what’s to prevent a hacker from gaining the information he wants by brute force? And wouldn’t whatever selection of information he gets be enough to steal an identity?

I’ll admit, I haven’t read the research. But I certainly appreciate folks who are willing to try do things the way that no-one else thinks would ever work.

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