Archive for the ‘privacy’ Category

Project Gaydar and social network privacy

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

Sunday’s Boston Globe has an article on online privacy provocatively titled Project ‘Gaydar’ that leads with a story of an class experiment done by two MIT students on predicting sexual orientation from social network information.

“Using data from the social network Facebook, they made a striking discovery: just by looking at a person’s online friends, they could predict whether the person was gay. They did this with a software program that looked at the gender and sexuality of a person’s friends and, using statistical analysis, made a prediction. The two students had no way of checking all of their predictions, but based on their own knowledge outside the Facebook world, their computer program appeared quite accurate for men, they said.”

I suspect that many will read the article and think that such an analysis can be easily done on their own Facebook information. While I’m not a Facebook expert, I assume that the vast majority of its users employ the default privacy settings which do not allow non-friends to see personal information including gender and the ‘interested in’ attribute, which can be used as a proxy for sexual orientation.

Still, the problem of protecting privacy in online social networking systems is a very real one. The Boston Globe story also mentions work by AISL colleague Murat Kantarcioglu on predicting political affiliations (see Inferring Private Information Using Social Network Data).

“He and a student – who later went to work for Facebook – took 167,000 profiles and 3 million links between people from the Dallas-Fort Worth network. They used three methods to predict a person’s political views. One prediction model used only the details in their profiles. Another used only friendship links. And the third combined the two sets of data. The researchers found that certain traits, such as knowing what groups people belonged to or their favorite music, were quite predictive of political affiliation. But they also found that they did better than a random guess when only using friendship connections. The best results came from combining the two approaches.”

The article also mentions Lise Getoor‘s work on discovering private information by integrating work across Facebook, Flickr, Dogster and BibSonomy (see To Join or not to Join: The Illusion of Privacy in Social Networks with Mixed Public and Private User Profiles).

“Those researchers blinded themselves to the profiles of half the people in each network, and launched a variety of “attacks” on the networks, to see what private information they could glean by simply looking at things like groups people belonged to, and their friendship links. On each network, at least one attack worked. Researchers could predict where Flickr users lived; Facebook users’ gender, a dog’s breed, and whether someone was likely to be a spammer on BibSonomy. The authors found that membership in a group gave away a significant amount of information, but also found that predictions using friend links weren’t as strong as they expected. “Using friends in classifying people has to be treated with care,” computer scientists Lise Getoor and Elena Zheleva wrote.”

Will the new Netflix Prize 2 dataset leak private information?

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

The New York Times reports that the data for the Netflix Prize 2 will include more information about the anonymous users:

“Netflix was so pleased with the results of its first contest that it announced a second one on Monday. The new contest will present contestants with demographic and behavioral data, including renters’ ages, gender, ZIP codes, genre ratings and previously chosen movies — but not ratings. Contestants will then have to predict which movies those people will like.”

As others have noted this will make it much easier to “de-anonymize” individuals in the collection.

As an experiment, I checked the zip code where I grew up and found that it had about 3900 people in the 2000 census. So, given an age and gender you would have a set of about 40 people. With just a little bit of additional information, one could narrow this to a specific individual.

For example, Narayanan and Shmatikov showed (Robust De-anonymization of Large Sparse Datasets) that this could be done with the dataset from the first Netflix Grand Prize by mining information from IMDB. Think of how much more powerful such attacks would be with the new dataset.

EFF on location privacy

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

The Electronic Frontier Foundation released a whitepaper, On Locational Privacy, and How to Avoid Losing it Forever, discussing problems and solutions involving location privacy. The report, written by Andrew Blumberg and Peter Eckersley, outlines how location information is being collected by devices and services and argues for solutions that maintain potential benefits without sacrificing personal privacy.

“There are nifty new location-based technologies like electronic road-toll tags and cell-phone apps that alert you when your friends are nearby — but these systems often create and store records of your movements,” said EFF Staff Technologist Peter Eckersley, one of the co-writers of the white paper. “This could make it possible for others to know when you visited a health clinic, what church or bar you spend time in, or who you go to lunch with. It is essential that privacy-protecting algorithms are built into these devices and services, so we can enjoy their convenience without making our private lives into open books.”

“The technical solution to preserving privacy in digital services lies in modern cryptography and careful design,” said Stanford University mathematician Andrew J. Blumberg, the white paper’s other co-writer. “It may seem counterintuitive, but using cryptography, these systems can function without collecting and storing personal data at all. The best way for systems to protect user data is not to collect it in the first place; then the information is not available for anyone to buy, steal, or obtain by subpoena — it would stay truly private.”

NY AG Cuomo to sue social networking site for privacy invasion

Friday, July 10th, 2009

New York state attorney general Andrew Cuomo announced he intends to sue social networking company “for deceptive e-mail marketing practices and invasion of privacy”.

“Between April and June this year, Tagged sent tens of millions of misleading emails to unsuspecting recipients stating that Tagged members had posted private photos online for their friends to view. In reality, no such photos existed and the email was not from their friends. When recipients of these fraudulent emails tried to access the photos, they were forced to become a new member of Tagged. The company would then illegally gain access to their personal email contacts to send more fraudulent invitations.
     “This company stole the address books and identities of millions of people,” said Attorney General Cuomo. “Consumers had their privacy invaded and were forced into the embarrassing position of having to apologize to all their email contacts for Tagged’s unethical – and illegal – behavior. This very virulent form of spam is the online equivalent of breaking into a home, stealing address books, and sending phony mail to all of an individual’s personal contacts. We would never accept this behavior in the real world, and we cannot accept it online.”

See stories in the NYT and Independent.

NSA: lead for Government IDS, DHS involvement added

Friday, July 3rd, 2009

The Washington Post has a long article on the latest Obama administration plan to protect government agencies from cyber attacks, Cybersecurity Plan to Involve NSA, Telecoms — DHS Officials Debating The Privacy Implications.

“The Obama administration will proceed with a Bush-era plan to use National Security Agency assistance in screening government computer traffic on private-sector networks, with AT&T as the likely test site, according to three current and former government officials.

President Obama said in May that government efforts to protect computer systems from attack would not involve “monitoring private-sector networks or Internet traffic,” and Department of Homeland Security officials say the new program will scrutinize only data going to or from government systems.

But the program has provoked debate within DHS, the officials said, because of uncertainty about whether private data can be shielded from unauthorized scrutiny, how much of a role NSA should play and whether the agency’s involvement in warrantless wiretapping during George W. Bush’s presidency would draw controversy. Each time a private citizen visited a “dot-gov” Web site or sent an e-mail to a civilian government employee, that action would be screened for potential harm to the network.”

This is reported to be a continuation of the Einstein 3 program begun under the Bush administration. One difference is the new role for DHS in providing some oversight and guidance.

“Under a classified pilot program approved during the Bush administration, NSA data and hardware would be used to protect the networks of some civilian government agencies. Part of an initiative known as Einstein 3, the plan called for telecommunications companies to route the Internet traffic of civilian agencies through a monitoring box that would search for and block computer codes designed to penetrate or otherwise compromise networks.”

There’s a lot more in the article that is worth reading.

FaceBook default privacy policies changing

Wednesday, July 1st, 2009

FaceBook is changing how it manages privacy starting today. After reading last week’s post on the FaceBook blog, More Ways to Share in the Publisher, and a followup note on ReadWriteWeb, A Closer Look at Facebook’s New Privacy Options, I thought I understood: Facebook was sharing more but only for people who have made their profiles public. From the official FaceBook post:

“We’ve received some questions in the comments about default privacy settings for this beta. Nothing has changed with your default privacy settings. The beta is only open to people who already chose to set their profile and status privacy to “Everyone.” For those people, the default for sharing from the Publisher will be the same. If you have your default privacy set to anything else—such as “Friends and Networks” or “Friends Only”—you are not part of this beta.”

But today the New York Times has an article, The Day Facebook Changed: Messages to Become Public by Default that clearly says more is coming (emphasis added):

“By default, all your messages on Facebook will soon be naked visible to the world. The company is starting by rolling out the feature to people who had already set their profiles as public, but it will come to everyone soon. You’ll be able each time you publish a message to change that message’s privacy setting and from that drop down there’s a link to change your default setting.

But most people will not change the setting. Facebook messages are about to be publicly visible. A whole lot of people are going to hate it. When ex-lovers, bosses, moms, stalkers, cops, creeps and others find out what people have been posting on Facebook – the reprimand that “well, you could have changed your default setting” is not going to sit well with people.”

But it will come to everyone soon! That’s a big change if true. I hope that there is come clarification soon from FaceBook. I, for one, am left confused.

In face, as the ReadWrite post notes, the FaceBook privacy policy interface is confusing and not easy to use.

“Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to manage the new privacy settings as they are currently constituted. Several members of our staff struggled to make changes to message-specific and default privacy settings really stick. The feature is confusing if not outright broken. A lot of messages intended for limited distribution are going to be sent out wider than the author intended. That’s not good.”

This is an important thing to get right.

Murat Kantarcioglu on Facebook Privacy Issues

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

KDAF-TV in Dallas/Fort Worth did a story on privacy and social media featuring an interview with Murat Kantarcioglu.

“Online Social Networks are redefining privacy and personal security, but how much of your personal life have you already given up? A professor at UT Dallas says chances are you’ve given up more than you know.