When Associate Professor Jason Hong’s blackjack app on his smartphone asked him for his location, he wondered what his location had to do with a poker game and debated giving the app what it wanted. His curiosity led to an investigation to find out which other apps access personal user information. He took his experiment a step further by presenting his findings to users and gauging their reaction and level of awareness.
Jason’s research group at Carnegie Mellon University specializes in human computer interaction and has studied user privacy and security issues for a decade. Jason and his team discovered that the most unsuspecting apps, like Angry Birds or the Brightest Flashlight app, access sensitive data such as our contact lists, unique device id and location. When confronted with this data, most users were shocked and even disturbed to discover the personal information these apps access, causing many to delete the apps. In our technological age, the more a company knows about its users, the better it can advertise to their needs, sometimes at the cost of the user’s privacy. As Jason indicates, technology can only enhance our lives if we use it, not if we are suspicious and avoidant due to privacy concerns. Technology can only maintain the trust of the user by meeting privacy and security standards, which as of now are virtually nonexistent when it comes to smartphone apps.
Jason hopes that his research will spread user awareness, lead developers to create better interface for apps and inspire new privacy and security laws to protect smartphone users. Next up, Jason plans to study the human behavior trends of cities in real time to compile useful data for urban planners, politicians and sociologists, such as, what happens to neighboring businesses when a Target opens or how far will people travel to shop at the only organic grocery store in town?
Jason received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley and his undergraduate degree from Georgia Institute of Technology. Jason is co-founder of Wombat Security Technologies, is an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow and a Kavli Fellow, and has participated on DARPA's Computer Science Study Panel (CS2P).