Privacy literacy, legislation top-of-mind at TAU

Researchers in Tel Aviv University’s Blavatnik Interdisciplinary Cyber Research Center want to help users make better decisions about privacy.

May 4, 2018 00:47
3 minute read.
A man is silhouetted against a video screen with a Twitter and a Facebook logo

A man is silhouetted against a video screen with a Twitter and a Facebook logo. (photo credit: DADO RUVIC/REUTERS)

The recent testimony by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg brought once again to the forefront that Zuckerberg and other Facebook employees rarely talk about “privacy,” but rather operate from the assumption that people want to share information.

It also was a powerful reminder that sometimes this “sharing” can go too far.

Researchers in Tel Aviv University’s Blavatnik Interdisciplinary Cyber Research Center want to help users make better decisions about privacy. A new project called “Guiding and Incentivizing Cyber-Security Behavior” is hoping to “nudge users toward more secure and privacy-aware decisions,” said Dr. Eran Toch, a faculty member of the Department of Industrial Engineering, who is leading the project.

One focus of his research is centered on how to create mechanisms that effectively help people make smarter decisions about how to share their information.

“Using playful mechanisms, like games with points or reward systems, or even just delicately reminding them,” seem to work best, Toch told The Jerusalem Post.

He said that this is especially true and relevant for organizations whose entire networks could come crashing down if a user downloads the wrong document or shares his or her information with the wrong person or system.

But his research also found that people are more privacy literate than Zuckerberg would like to believe. He said the younger the person, the higher the probability that person uses privacy settings.

Additionally, the more affluent, the more likely the person is privacy savvy.

Toch and his research team, together with urban studies specialist Dr. Tali Hatuka and legal scholars Prof. Michael Birnhack and Prof. Issachar Rosen-Zvi, surveyed more than 500 residents of various areas of Tel Aviv. They found that “people living in the north and south are less aware of privacy risks, and privacy plays a weaker part in their decision to participate or not participate online.”

Toch also focuses on guiding legislative policy and laws, such as encouraging the government to offer privacy literary courses to senior citizens or in schools.

“People have to understand how computer systems work, how Facebook works, how online government services work, what will happen with their data, and how to manage it,” said Toch.

“Otherwise, they cannot make good decisions.”

He likewise counsels big companies on their own privacy policies and helps technology developers create new technology that is more privacy respectful.

Toch said even subtle changes in the design of interfaces in which choices are presented to users can have a tremendous effect on people’s decisions.

“Even subtle changes in the choice of architecture, such as the selection of default options, can significantly alter the decisions of users, nudging them to specific directions, and even change the way they perceive their possibilities,” he said.

“So much of our lives is digitized, and this is only the beginning,” said Toch.

“In decades, we are going to have computers in our brains.”

He said if we don’t tackle these issues today, we could have much larger challenges in the future. For example, a TAU interdisciplinary team, led by Prof. Noam Shomron from the Sackler Faculty of Medicine, is currently focused on solving the “huge privacy problem” with genetic tests, such as 23andMe or even those tests conducted in a medical facility.

“Genetic information does not just identify who we are, but it also tells us a lot about what diseases we have or could have,” explained Toch. “Someone might not get a job or be recruited to a top job in the army if an employer checks his genetic profile and predicts he could become ill. Or a health insurance company in America might choose not to cover someone – or to raise his premiums – because he is projected to develop cancer, based on his genes. That is very scary.”

TAU researchers came up with a mechanism whereby genetic information can be used for research without harming a person’s privacy.

“Our center has a lot of projects and many researchers,” said Toch. “It is what I love about TAU: innovation, collaboration and researchers looking at a wide array of problems from various points of view.”

This article was written in cooperation with Tel Aviv University.

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