Academic Commons

Theses Doctoral

Exploring Societal Computing based on the Example of Privacy

Sheth, Swapneel

Data privacy when using online systems like Facebook and Amazon has become an increasingly popular topic in the last few years. This thesis will consist of the following four projects that aim to address the issues of privacy and software engineering.
First, only a little is known about how users and developers perceive privacy and which concrete measures would mitigate their privacy concerns. To investigate privacy requirements, we conducted an online survey with closed and open questions and collected 408 valid responses. Our results show that users often reduce privacy to security, with data sharing and data breaches being their biggest concerns. Users are more concerned about the content of their documents and their personal data such as location than about their interaction data. Unlike users, developers clearly prefer technical measures like data anonymization and think that privacy laws and policies are less effective. We also observed interesting differences between people from different geographies. For example, people from Europe are more concerned about data breaches than people from North America. People from Asia/Pacific and Europe believe that content and metadata are more critical for privacy than people from North America. Our results contribute to developing a user-driven privacy framework that is based on empirical evidence in addition to the legal, technical, and commercial perspectives.
Second, a related challenge to above, is to make privacy more understandable in complex systems that may have a variety of user interface options, which may change often. As social network platforms have evolved, the ability for users to control how and with whom information is being shared introduces challenges concerning the configuration and comprehension of privacy settings. To address these concerns, our crowd sourced approach simplifies the understanding of privacy settings by using data collected from 512 users over a 17 month period to generate visualizations that allow users to compare their personal settings to an arbitrary subset of individuals of their choosing. To validate our approach we conducted an online survey with closed and open questions and collected 59 valid responses after which we conducted follow-up interviews with 10 respondents. Our results showed that 70% of respondents found visualizations using crowd sourced data useful for understanding privacy settings, and 80% preferred a crowd sourced tool for configuring their privacy settings over current privacy controls.
Third, as software evolves over time, this might introduce bugs that breach users' privacy. Further, there might be system-wide policy changes that could change users' settings to be more or less private than before. We present a novel technique that can be used by end-users for detecting changes in privacy, i.e., regression testing for privacy. Using a social approach for detecting privacy bugs, we present two prototype tools. Our evaluation shows the feasibility and utility of our approach for detecting privacy bugs. We highlight two interesting case studies on the bugs that were discovered using our tools. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first technique that leverages regression testing for detecting privacy bugs from an end-user perspective.
Fourth, approaches to addressing these privacy concerns typically require substantial extra computational resources, which might be beneficial where privacy is concerned, but may have significant negative impact with respect to Green Computing and sustainability, another major societal concern. Spending more computation time results in spending more energy and other resources that make the software system less sustainable. Ideally, what we would like are techniques for designing software systems that address these privacy concerns but which are also sustainable - systems where privacy could be achieved "for free", i.e., without having to spend extra computational effort. We describe how privacy can indeed be achieved for free an accidental and beneficial side effect of doing some existing computation - in web applications and online systems that have access to user data. We show the feasibility, sustainability, and utility of our approach and what types of privacy threats it can mitigate.
Finally, we generalize the problem of privacy and its tradeoffs. As Social Computing has increasingly captivated the general public, it has become a popular research area for computer scientists. Social Computing research focuses on online social behavior and using artifacts derived from it for providing recommendations and other useful community knowledge. Unfortunately, some of that behavior and knowledge incur societal costs, particularly with regards to Privacy, which is viewed quite differently by different populations as well as regulated differently in different locales. But clever technical solutions to those challenges may impose additional societal costs, e.g., by consuming substantial resources at odds with Green Computing, another major area of societal concern. We propose a new crosscutting research area, Societal Computing, that focuses on the technical tradeoffs among computational models and application domains that raise significant societal issues. We highlight some of the relevant research topics and open problems that we foresee in Societal Computing. We feel that these topics, and Societal Computing in general, need to gain prominence as they will provide useful avenues of research leading to increasing benefits for society as a whole.



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More About This Work

Academic Units
Computer Science
Thesis Advisors
Kaiser, Gail E.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 17, 2014


Columbia University Computer Science Technical Reports, CUCS-013-14