NSF $450K (IU: $160K) Award to Study “Tangible Privacy: User-Centric Sensor Designs for Assured Privacy”

High-fidelity, and often privacy-invasive, sensors are now becoming pervasive in our everyday environments. At home, digital assistants can constantly listen for instructions and security cameras can be on the lookout for unusual activity. Whereas once an individual’s physical actions, in their own home, were private, now networked cameras and microphones can give rise to electronic privacy concerns for one’s physical behaviors. Casual conversations and encounters, once thought to be private and ephemeral, now may be captured and disseminated or archived digitally. While these sensing devices benefit the users in many different ways, hence their popularity, their users may face serious privacy violations. A major problem with current sensing devices is that it is oftentimes unclear whether an audio or video sensor is, indeed, off upon visual inspection by occupants of a space. For example, sensors that have been hacked may indeed record people without their consent, even when their interfaces (e.g., small indicator lights) claim that they are off. The goal of this project is to explore privacy-enhanced sensor designs that provide people with the knowledge and assurance of when they are being recorded and what data is being captured and disseminated. Whereas purely software mechanisms may not inspire trust, physical mechanisms (e.g., a camera’s physical lens cap) can provide a more tangible privacy guarantee to people. This project explores novel, physical designs of sensors that convey a clear and definite sense of assurance to people about their physical privacy.

Through a collaboration with University of Pittsburgh professors Rosta Farzan and Adam J. Lee, this project brings together expertise in computer security and privacy, access control, human computer interaction, and social computing. Through this interdisciplinary team, the project makes socio-technical contributions to both theory and practice by: (1) understanding the privacy concerns, needs, and behaviors of people in the face of increased sensing in physical environments; (2) exploring the design space for hardware sensing platforms to convey meaningful (‘tangible’) assurances of privacy to people by their physical appearance and function; (3) exploring visual indicators of what information is being sent over the network; and (4) exploring alternative sensor designs that trade off sensing fidelity for higher privacy. Together these designs combine hardware and software techniques to tangibly and visually convey a sense of privacy to people impacted by the sensors.