Google award funds online privacy research at IST

UNIVERSITY PARK, PA. -- Online privacy has become a hot-button issue in recent years, as people are increasingly sharing their lives and conducting business on the Internet. With $30,000 in funding from Google, two professors at Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology are investigating the factors that influence individual privacy preferences, and how they can be used to develop services that are in tune with consumers’ needs.

Anna Squicciarini, assistant professor of information sciences and technology, received a Google Research Award in December 2011 to support her research exploring consumers’ preferences regarding online privacy. The major questions that Squicciarini seeks to address, she said, are “What are the discriminating features with respect to privacy and how to automatically detect them?”

Jens Grossklags, assistant professor of information sciences and technology, received the same award in summer 2011 to fund his research, which examines the nuances of online interactions that involve behavioral and legal privacy issues.

“There are many fascinating research questions about how consumers are able to translate their privacy preferences to actual behaviors, and how they can be supported by technology,” Grossklags said.

The Google Research Awards program, according to its website, “aims to identify and support world-class, full-time faculty pursuing research in areas of mutual interest.” The intent of the program is to support academic research aimed at improving information access. Google funds research awards unrestricted for one year in the range of $10,000 to $150,000, and retains no intellectual property from the research.

Squicciarini, who has a doctorate in computer science from the University of Milan, joined the IST faculty in 2008. Her research interests include trust negotiations, privacy and access control for grid computing systems.

In her research, Squicciarini is examining how access control mechanisms can be used to protect computer users’ privacy and how software developers can write code to automatically infer privacy policies for individuals based on their reactions to various types of content. In her research model, a user uploads an image, such as a photograph of children or landscapes, on a social networking site. Based on his or her interactions, the software program determines the discriminating features with respect to privacy and suggests settings that are tailored to the user’s preferences.

Her multi-criteria model could help users formulate their “trusted circles” in online social networks, Squicciarini said, as well as adjust the degree to which they share information on applications and websites. Rather than merely focusing on the social context of privacy settings, she added, her research is intended to  determine what other factors may influence users’ comfort levels in sharing information.

“It’s not just about who is watching you,” she said. “Does the content itself matter?”

Grossklags, who has a doctorate from the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, is studying information privacy, security, technology policy and networked interactions from a theoretical and practical perspective.

Through his Google research initiative, Grossklags is examining the factors that influence consumers’ expectations and shape their decisions when they are confronted with legal disclosures and privacy notices that accompany online interactions. He is trying to determine how they balance the perceived benefits and consequences of privacy practices, and what eventually happens with private data. One important aspect, he said, is that the ubiquity of sharing personal information online may have shifted people’s expectations with regards to privacy.

The dynamics that come into play between consumers and online marketers, Grossklags said, are hard to pin down. One of the major complications is the wide variation of privacy preferences and displayed behaviors among computer users.

“Cutting through the data fog to derive intuitive and accurate insights about consumer behavior is a real challenge,” he said.

Understanding online privacy practices, Grossklags said, as well as determining “where the system breaks down,” can have tangible benefits. The results of the research that he and Squicciarini are undertaking, he said, may eventually serve as an impetus to consumers to demand specific privacy-related services from companies.

“Our research serves as an incubator for new practices and technologies in the field,” Grossklags said. “The work is timely given the recent releases of the White House’s Privacy Bill of Rights, and the Federal Trade Commission’s Privacy Framework. What is needed is a better understanding of the potential and the limits of consumer control and business transparency.”

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Last Updated April 25, 2012