How to Keep Digital Secrets Safe

Wednesday, January 19, 2011 @ 05:01 PM gHale

Sometimes it is all taking that one last step or being patient and completing the job. When it comes to privacy in the digital age, there may be a better way to educate folks about their privacy in a virtual environment.

It’s all about fine-tuning privacy settings based on user information and behavior, said Dr. Eran Toch of Tel Aviv University’s Iby and Aladar Fleischman Faculty of Engineering. His software solution, Locacino, provides users with a higher degree of control over their privacy settings. It also provides a glimpse into how people really share information between friends over the Internet.

Facebook’s lack of privacy settings can cost us relationships or a future job. But knowing how to fine-tune our settings can save future heartache, said Dr. Toch.

Dr. Toch created Locacino, a location-sharing application that can capture end-user security and privacy preferences in mobile computing.

In most social applications, it’s not easy to fine-tune privacy settings. Like FourSquare and Facebook “Places,” Locacino allows its users to track their friends’ physical location, but in Locacino, users can also see who is viewing their profiles and location updates, which may lead users to rethink and modify their privacy settings.

At Carnegie Mellon, where his research began, Dr. Toch and his team conducted large experiments using the Locacino application downloaded to users’ iPhones and Android phones. The mobile social network allows people to fine-tune the way they want their information about them presented online. Thousands of college students participated in the study.

Dr. Toch examined what kinds of location updates users are more likely to share, then determined the users’ “centers of privacy.” It turned out that young people guard locations that might reveal information about their social life more than anything else, even the location of their homes or dorms.

Locacino’s flexibility allows users to let their work colleagues know their physical location on weekdays, but not on weekends. “If a friend tags you on an iPhone when you’re at a pub instead of at work, you have no control over work colleagues seeing that on Facebook. But if we give users more flexible privacy settings, they’re actually willing to share even more information online,” Dr. Toch said.

There are cultural differences in attitudes toward online privacy as well. Next, Dr. Toch will investigate online privacy among the Israeli Arab population, and he’s already discovered differences between Americans and Israelis. Israelis, for instance, would never dream of blocking their parents from Facebook, but it’s common in the United States — especially when the kids are teenagers, he says.

When Locacino completes the development stage, Prof. Toch hopes it will allow users to rethink security and privacy in the digital world — and give them the tools to better control it.

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