Whether you’re searching for directions or a place to eat, your smartphone is sending information to servers—information that could potentially be used by the wrong people. But now, researchers have developed an app that blocks third parties from identifying a person's location based on what they search for online.
A research team led by Linke Guo, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Binghamton University, recently won big at the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) GLOBECOM Conference, Symposium on Communication and Information System Security.
Their paper—titled, “Privacy-preserving Verifiable Proximity Test for Location-based Services”—won the Best Paper Award and was honored in twelve different categories at the conference.
Guo, who presented the paper with graduate students Gaoquiang Zhou and Qi Jia, says their app can protect users from having their information collected by third parties with malicious intent.
“The trend of people using searches and social networks on smartphones which aren’t well-protected is going up,” said Guo in a statement to Newswise. “Sometimes people share too much information. This is a way to help provide some security.”
The app, which grants control over where your information ends up, would benefit oversharers and average sharers alike. Studies show that neither party has a clear picture of how often apps share their personal information
Apps are tracking you
One 2015 study out of Carnegie Mellon gave 23 smartphone users a daily message called a “privacy nudge” telling them how many times their apps shared their location, photo call logs, contact lists, or other information.
Participants were stunned by the sky-high numbers. “Your location has been shared 5,398 times with Facebook, Groupon, GO Launcher EX and seven other apps in the last 14 days,” read one user’s privacy nudge.
The majority of smartphone users have no way of accessing relevant data about their apps’ behavior—but the study demonstrated that when people do manage to get their hands on this privacy information, they quickly change their privacy settings and act to limit future sharing.
During a time when it’s often not feasible to limit sharing, the app would step in to watch your back, granting a level of control not currently available.
“When we release personal information to the Internet, it is out of our control, and can be easily searched and used for malicious purposes,” Guo said. “We are trying to provide a more efficient and feasible solution to make sure that kind of information is secure.”
So instead of relegating yourself to an Amish way of life after learning that your location has been shared 5,398 times over the course of 14 days, you could simply download the app. It is not currently available to the public, but it may be in the future.