Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

New tool expands tracking of personal data on the Web

12.10.2015

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 "hightimes.com" 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, augustin@cs.columbia.edu
Roxana Geambasu, roxana@cs.columbia.edu
Daniel Hsu, djhsu@cs.columbia.edu

Media Contact: Kim Martineau, klm32@columbia.edu, (646) 717-0134

The Data Science Institute at Columbia University is training the next generation of data scientists and developing technology to serve society. http://datascience.columbia.edu/

Media Contact

Kim Martineau
klm32@columbia.edu
646-717-0134

 @columbia

http://www.columbia.edu 

Kim Martineau | EurekAlert!

More articles from Information Technology:

nachricht Multifunctional e-glasses monitor health, protect eyes, control video game
28.05.2020 | American Chemical Society

nachricht Researchers incorporate computer vision and uncertainty into AI for robotic prosthetics
28.05.2020 | North Carolina State University

All articles from Information Technology >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

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

Im Focus: Biotechnology: Triggered by light, a novel way to switch on an enzyme

In living cells, enzymes drive biochemical metabolic processes enabling reactions to take place efficiently. It is this very ability which allows them to be used as catalysts in biotechnology, for example to create chemical products such as pharmaceutics. Researchers now identified an enzyme that, when illuminated with blue light, becomes catalytically active and initiates a reaction that was previously unknown in enzymatics. The study was published in "Nature Communications".

Enzymes: they are the central drivers for biochemical metabolic processes in every living cell, enabling reactions to take place efficiently. It is this very...

Im Focus: New double-contrast technique picks up small tumors on MRI

Early detection of tumors is extremely important in treating cancer. A new technique developed by researchers at the University of California, Davis offers a significant advance in using magnetic resonance imaging to pick out even very small tumors from normal tissue. The work is published May 25 in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

researchers at the University of California, Davis offers a significant advance in using magnetic resonance imaging to pick out even very small tumors from...

Im Focus: I-call - When microimplants communicate with each other / Innovation driver digitization - "Smart Health“

Microelectronics as a key technology enables numerous innovations in the field of intelligent medical technology. The Fraunhofer Institute for Biomedical Engineering IBMT coordinates the BMBF cooperative project "I-call" realizing the first electronic system for ultrasound-based, safe and interference-resistant data transmission between implants in the human body.

When microelectronic systems are used for medical applications, they have to meet high requirements in terms of biocompatibility, reliability, energy...

Im Focus: When predictions of theoretical chemists become reality

Thomas Heine, Professor of Theoretical Chemistry at TU Dresden, together with his team, first predicted a topological 2D polymer in 2019. Only one year later, an international team led by Italian researchers was able to synthesize these materials and experimentally prove their topological properties. For the renowned journal Nature Materials, this was the occasion to invite Thomas Heine to a News and Views article, which was published this week. Under the title "Making 2D Topological Polymers a reality" Prof. Heine describes how his theory became a reality.

Ultrathin materials are extremely interesting as building blocks for next generation nano electronic devices, as it is much easier to make circuits and other...

Im Focus: Rolling into the deep

Scientists took a leukocyte as the blueprint and developed a microrobot that has the size, shape and moving capabilities of a white blood cell. Simulating a blood vessel in a laboratory setting, they succeeded in magnetically navigating the ball-shaped microroller through this dynamic and dense environment. The drug-delivery vehicle withstood the simulated blood flow, pushing the developments in targeted drug delivery a step further: inside the body, there is no better access route to all tissues and organs than the circulatory system. A robot that could actually travel through this finely woven web would revolutionize the minimally-invasive treatment of illnesses.

A team of scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems (MPI-IS) in Stuttgart invented a tiny microrobot that resembles a white blood cell...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

Dresden Nexus Conference 2020: Same Time, Virtual Format, Registration Opened

19.05.2020 | Event News

Aachen Machine Tool Colloquium AWK'21 will take place on June 10 and 11, 2021

07.04.2020 | Event News

International Coral Reef Symposium in Bremen Postponed by a Year

06.04.2020 | Event News

 
Latest News

Black nitrogen: Bayreuth researchers discover new high-pressure material and solve a puzzle of the periodic table

29.05.2020 | Materials Sciences

Argonne researchers create active material out of microscopic spinning particles

29.05.2020 | Materials Sciences

Smart windows that self-illuminate on rainy days

29.05.2020 | Power and Electrical Engineering

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>