Researcher proposes alert tool for managing online privacy risks

As more and more of our daily life happens online, the issue of online privacy should be of prime importance to each of us. Unfortunately, it’s not.

Most users are not worried enough to scour the Internet for information about the latest privacy-killing features pushed out by social networks, online services and app makers, and even those who are often find it difficult and too time-consuming to keep abreast of the changes.

What we need is a way of getting all the relevant privacy information in a timely, applicable and focused fashion. Arvind Narayanan, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Princeton, proposes a “privacy alert” system that would know the users’ usual privacy choices and notify them of appropriate measures they should take to tackle potential privacy pitfalls.

In his mind, the system should consist of two modules.

“The first is a privacy ‘vulnerability tracker’ similar to well-established security vulnerability trackers. Each privacy threat is tagged with severity, products or demographics affected, and includes a list of steps users can take,” he explained in a blog post.

“The second component is a user-facing privacy tool that knows the user’s product choices, overall privacy preferences, etc., and uses this to filter the vulnerability database and generate alerts tailored to the user.”

This would allow users to keep on top of things, but also prevent them from being overwhelmed with unnecessary and impractical information.

“The ideas in this post aren’t fundamentally new, but by describing how the tool could work I hope to encourage people to work on it,” he admitted, and offered to collaborate with someone who is interested in creating it.

He also mentioned a few additional “bells and whistles” such a tool might incorporate, such as the possibility of crowdsourcing relevant information, an open API, and the option of connecting the tool to the users’ browsing history and other personal information. This last option, he says, would work only if users trust the creator of the tool.

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