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 Study suggests buried Internet infrastructure at risk as sea levels rise
18.07.2018 | University of Wisconsin-Madison

nachricht Microscopic trampoline may help create networks of quantum computers
17.07.2018 | University of Colorado at Boulder

All articles from Information Technology >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

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

Im Focus: First evidence on the source of extragalactic particles

For the first time ever, scientists have determined the cosmic origin of highest-energy neutrinos. A research group led by IceCube scientist Elisa Resconi, spokesperson of the Collaborative Research Center SFB1258 at the Technical University of Munich (TUM), provides an important piece of evidence that the particles detected by the IceCube neutrino telescope at the South Pole originate from a galaxy four billion light-years away from Earth.

To rule out other origins with certainty, the team led by neutrino physicist Elisa Resconi from the Technical University of Munich and multi-wavelength...

Im Focus: Magnetic vortices: Two independent magnetic skyrmion phases discovered in a single material

For the first time a team of researchers have discovered two different phases of magnetic skyrmions in a single material. Physicists of the Technical Universities of Munich and Dresden and the University of Cologne can now better study and understand the properties of these magnetic structures, which are important for both basic research and applications.

Whirlpools are an everyday experience in a bath tub: When the water is drained a circular vortex is formed. Typically, such whirls are rather stable. Similar...

Im Focus: Breaking the bond: To take part or not?

Physicists working with Roland Wester at the University of Innsbruck have investigated if and how chemical reactions can be influenced by targeted vibrational excitation of the reactants. They were able to demonstrate that excitation with a laser beam does not affect the efficiency of a chemical exchange reaction and that the excited molecular group acts only as a spectator in the reaction.

A frequently used reaction in organic chemistry is nucleophilic substitution. It plays, for example, an important role in in the synthesis of new chemical...

Im Focus: New 2D Spectroscopy Methods

Optical spectroscopy allows investigating the energy structure and dynamic properties of complex quantum systems. Researchers from the University of Würzburg present two new approaches of coherent two-dimensional spectroscopy.

"Put an excitation into the system and observe how it evolves." According to physicist Professor Tobias Brixner, this is the credo of optical spectroscopy....

Im Focus: Chemical reactions in the light of ultrashort X-ray pulses from free-electron lasers

Ultra-short, high-intensity X-ray flashes open the door to the foundations of chemical reactions. Free-electron lasers generate these kinds of pulses, but there is a catch: the pulses vary in duration and energy. An international research team has now presented a solution: Using a ring of 16 detectors and a circularly polarized laser beam, they can determine both factors with attosecond accuracy.

Free-electron lasers (FELs) generate extremely short and intense X-ray flashes. Researchers can use these flashes to resolve structures with diameters on the...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

Leading experts in Diabetes, Metabolism and Biomedical Engineering discuss Precision Medicine

13.07.2018 | Event News

Conference on Laser Polishing – LaP: Fine Tuning for Surfaces

12.07.2018 | Event News

11th European Wood-based Panel Symposium 2018: Meeting point for the wood-based materials industry

03.07.2018 | Event News

 
Latest News

Metal too 'gummy' to cut? Draw on it with a Sharpie or glue stick, science says

19.07.2018 | Materials Sciences

NSF-supported researchers to present new results on hurricanes and other extreme events

19.07.2018 | Earth Sciences

Scientists uncover the role of a protein in production & survival of myelin-forming cells

19.07.2018 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>