Our mobile phones are increasingly capable of generating vast quantities of data about our behavior. Such is the breadth and depth of data collected by our phones, it’s often next to impossible for the average user to both understand what data is being collected and how it’s being used. This is often compounded by the sheer number of services most of us have on our phones.
Thankfully, there’s now an app for that. Privacy Assistant is a new service developed by a team from Carnegie Mellon. It utilizes machine learning to try and give users control over their data again.
Suffice to say, even such an apparently useful service comes with a slight caveat in that it requires the phone to be rooted. This means that the phone is unlocked and can, therefore, accept unapproved apps. It’s quite a useful thing for your phone to be, but alas the vast majority probably don’t fall into this category.
Moving Out of the Shadows
Nonetheless, the team is hopeful that the app will sufficiently show its worth among tech savvy early adopters to encourage one of the large tech companies to invest and help take it into the mainstream.
It’s certainly a service that is urgently required. With apps increasingly relying on advertising for survival, the data they generate is the currency by which they trade. As such, apps are increasingly capturing more and more of our data, with the majority of us largely oblivious to what is being captured and how it’s being used. The terms and conditions statements we sign upon downloading each app are seldom read, much less understood.
The app uses machine learning to model the privacy preferences of each individual. The system asks the user a few questions about their privacy concerns before then placing them in buckets of like-minded users. It then recommends privacy settings based upon the bucket we find ourselves in.
Suffice to say, the app is very much a work in progress, and the team hopes to develop a more proactive approach in coming iterations, with nudges and notifications used to better inform our decisions on a live basis.
"Many people who otherwise would not take a look at their settings realize that there is a lot of stuff that they are not aware of," the team says.
In addition to informing the user when an app is accessing their data, the team also hope to ensure that context is provided so that the user is aware why their data is being shared. For instance, whilst sometimes our data is captured for core functionality purposes, often it is not. When the CMU team analyzed a bunch of free apps, they often found that location data was captured for nothing more than advertising purposes.
Individual privacy is something we should all cherish and protect, and services like Privacy Assistant promise to make such protection easier than ever before. It’s a development that’s long overdue.