Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


New tool expands tracking of personal data on the Web


Columbia researchers to present 'Sunlight' at computer security conference

Navigating the Web gets easier by the day as corporate monitoring of our emails and browsing habits fine-tune the algorithms that serve us personalized ads and recommendations. But convenience comes at a cost. In the wrong hands, our personal information can be used against us, to discriminate on housing and health insurance, and overcharge on goods and services, among other risks.

A second-generation tool called Sunlight is intended to bring greater transparency to the Web.

Credit: Tumblr

"The Web is like the Wild West," says Roxana Geambasu, a computer scientist at Columbia Engineering and the Data Science Institute. "There's no oversight of how our data are being collected, exchanged and used."

With computer scientists, Augustin Chaintreau and Daniel Hsu, and graduate students Mathias Lecuyer, Riley Spahn and Yannis Spiliopoulos, Geambasu has designed a second-generation tool for bringing transparency to the Web.

It's called Sunlight and builds on its predecessor, XRay, which linked ads shown to Gmail users with text in their emails, and recommendations on Amazon and YouTube with their shopping and viewing patterns. The researchers will present the new tool and a related study on Oct. 14 in Denver, at the Association for Computing Machinery's annual conference on security.

Sunlight works at a wider scale than XRay, and more accurately matches user-tailored ads and recommendations to tidbits of information supplied by users, the researchers say. Prior researchers have traced specific ads, product recommendations and prices to specific inputs like location, search terms and gender, one by one.

One tool, AdFisher, received attention earlier this year after showing that fake Web users thought to be male job seekers were more likely than female job seekers to be shown ads for executive jobs when later visiting a news site.

Sunlight, by contrast, is the first to analyze numerous inputs and outputs together to form hypotheses that are tested on a separate dataset carved out from the original. At the end, each hypothesis, and its linked input and output, is rated for statistical confidence. "We're trying to strike a balance between statistical confidence and scale so that we can start to see what's happening across the Web as a whole," said Hsu.

The researchers set up 119 Gmail accounts, and over a month last fall sent 300 messages with sensitive words in the subject line and body of the email. About 15 percent of the ads that followed appeared to be targeted; some seemed to contradict Google's policy to not target ads based "on race, religion, sexual orientation, health or sensitive financial categories," the researchers said. For example, words typed into the subject line of a message-- "unemployed," "depressed," and "Jewish," were found to trigger ads for "easy auto financing," a service to find "cheating spouses," and a "free ancestor" search, respectively.

The researchers also set up fake browsing profiles and surfed the 40 most popular sites on the Web to see what ads popped up. They found that just 5 percent of the ads appeared to be targeted, but some seemed to violate Google's advertising ban on products and services facilitating drug use, they said. For example, a visit to "" triggered an ad for bongs at AquaLab Technologies, researchers said. Interestingly, the algorithms also seemed to pick up on the political leanings of popular news sites, pitching Israeli bonds to Fox News readers, and an anti-Tea Party candidate to Huffington Post readers.

The researchers caution against inferring that Google and other companies are intentionally using sensitive information to target ads and recommendations. The flow of personal data on the Web has become so complex, they said, that companies themselves may not know how targeting is taking place.

In Nov. 10, 2014, Google abruptly shut down Gmail ads - the last day that Geambasu and her colleagues were able to collect data. The ads appear to have been replaced by so-called organic ads displayed in the promotions tab. Sunlight has the ability to detect targeting in those ads, too, said Geambasu, but the researchers haven't yet given that a try.

Sunlight's intended audience is regulators, consumer watchdogs and journalists. The tool lets them explore how personal information is being used and decide where closer investigation is needed, they said. "In many ways the Web has been a force for good, but there needs to be accountability if it's going to remain that way," said Chaintreau.

"Sunlight is distinctive in that it can examine multiple types of inputs simultaneously (e.g., gender, age, browsing activity) to develop hypotheses about which of these inputs impact certain outputs (e.g., ads on Gmail)," said Anupam Datta, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon who led the development of the AdFisher tool and was not involved in the current study. "This tool takes us closer to the critical goal of discovering personal data use effects at scale."


A copy of the study "Sunlight: Fine-grained Targeting Detection at Scale with Statistical Confidence" is available online.

Related stories: New Tool Makes Online Privacy More Transparent, Aug. 18, 2014

Scientist Contacts:
Augustin Chaintreau,
Roxana Geambasu,
Daniel Hsu,

Media Contact: Kim Martineau,, (646) 717-0134

The Data Science Institute at Columbia University is training the next generation of data scientists and developing technology to serve society.

Media Contact

Kim Martineau


Kim Martineau | EurekAlert!

More articles from Information Technology:

nachricht Next Generation Cryptography
20.03.2018 | Fraunhofer-Institut für Sichere Informationstechnologie SIT

nachricht TIB’s Visual Analytics Research Group to develop methods for person detection and visualisation
19.03.2018 | Technische Informationsbibliothek (TIB)

All articles from Information Technology >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Researchers Discover New Anti-Cancer Protein

An international team of researchers has discovered a new anti-cancer protein. The protein, called LHPP, prevents the uncontrolled proliferation of cancer cells in the liver. The researchers led by Prof. Michael N. Hall from the Biozentrum, University of Basel, report in “Nature” that LHPP can also serve as a biomarker for the diagnosis and prognosis of liver cancer.

The incidence of liver cancer, also known as hepatocellular carcinoma, is steadily increasing. In the last twenty years, the number of cases has almost doubled...

Im Focus: Researchers at Fraunhofer monitor re-entry of Chinese space station Tiangong-1

In just a few weeks from now, the Chinese space station Tiangong-1 will re-enter the Earth's atmosphere where it will to a large extent burn up. It is possible that some debris will reach the Earth's surface. Tiangong-1 is orbiting the Earth uncontrolled at a speed of approx. 29,000 km/h.Currently the prognosis relating to the time of impact currently lies within a window of several days. The scientists at Fraunhofer FHR have already been monitoring Tiangong-1 for a number of weeks with their TIRA system, one of the most powerful space observation radars in the world, with a view to supporting the German Space Situational Awareness Center and the ESA with their re-entry forecasts.

Following the loss of radio contact with Tiangong-1 in 2016 and due to the low orbital height, it is now inevitable that the Chinese space station will...

Im Focus: Alliance „OLED Licht Forum“ – Key partner for OLED lighting solutions

Fraunhofer Institute for Organic Electronics, Electron Beam and Plasma Technology FEP, provider of research and development services for OLED lighting solutions, announces the founding of the “OLED Licht Forum” and presents latest OLED design and lighting solutions during light+building, from March 18th – 23rd, 2018 in Frankfurt a.M./Germany, at booth no. F91 in Hall 4.0.

They are united in their passion for OLED (organic light emitting diodes) lighting with all of its unique facets and application possibilities. Thus experts in...

Im Focus: Mars' oceans formed early, possibly aided by massive volcanic eruptions

Oceans formed before Tharsis and evolved together, shaping climate history of Mars

A new scenario seeking to explain how Mars' putative oceans came and went over the last 4 billion years implies that the oceans formed several hundred million...

Im Focus: Tiny implants for cells are functional in vivo

For the first time, an interdisciplinary team from the University of Basel has succeeded in integrating artificial organelles into the cells of live zebrafish embryos. This innovative approach using artificial organelles as cellular implants offers new potential in treating a range of diseases, as the authors report in an article published in Nature Communications.

In the cells of higher organisms, organelles such as the nucleus or mitochondria perform a range of complex functions necessary for life. In the networks of...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Industry & Economy
Event News

Virtual reality conference comes to Reutlingen

19.03.2018 | Event News

Ultrafast Wireless and Chip Design at the DATE Conference in Dresden

16.03.2018 | Event News

International Tinnitus Conference of the Tinnitus Research Initiative in Regensburg

13.03.2018 | Event News

Latest News

Modular safety concept increases flexibility in plant conversion

22.03.2018 | Trade Fair News

New interactive map shows climate change everywhere in world

22.03.2018 | Earth Sciences

New technologies and computing power to help strengthen population data

22.03.2018 | Earth Sciences

Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>