Team presentation

New technologies are very beneficial to the society and provide services that can drastically improve life’s quality. However, they can also pose considerable privacy threats and turn them into a nightmare. The goals of the Privatics team is to study the new privacy threats introduced by the information society and design privacy-preserving solutions to prevent or at least mitigate them. The project follows a multidisciplinary approach. It focuses on technical and scientific problems, but also considers the economical, legal and social aspects of privacy.

Research themes

  1. Understanding and formalizing privacy
  2. Building privacy preserving systems: Privacy-by-Design, Privacy and Transparency Enhancing Technologies



Detailled presentation

The promises of new technologies: Many advances in new technologies are very beneficial to the society and provide services that can drastically improve life’s quality. A good example is the emergence of reality mining. Reality mining is a new discipline that infers human relationships and behaviors from information collected by cell-phones. Collected information include data collected by the sensors, such as location or physical activities, as well as data recorded by the phones themselves, such as call duration and dialed numbers. Reality mining could be used by individuals to get information about themselves, their state or performances (“quantified self”). More importantly, it could help monitoring health. For example, the motions of a mobile phone might reveal changes in gait, which could be an early indicator of ailments or depression. The emergence of location-based or mobile/wireless services is also often very beneficial. These systems provide very useful and appreciated services, and become almost essential and inevitable nowadays. For example, RFID cards allow users to open doors or pay their metro tickets. GPS systems help users to navigate and find their ways.Some services tell users where their friends are or provide services personalized to their current location (such as indicating the closest restaurant or hotel). Some wireless parking meters send users a text message when their time is running out. The development of smart grids, smart houses, or more generally smart spaces/environments, can also positively contribute to the well-being of the society. Smart-grids and smart houses attempt to minimize energy consumption by monitoring users’ energy consumptions and applying adequate actions. These technologies can help reducing pollution and managing energy resources.

Privacy threats of new technologies: While the potential benefits provided by these systems are numerous, they also pose considerable privacy threats that can potentially turn new technologies into a nightmare. Most of these systems leave digital traces that can potentially be used to profile or monitor users. Content on the Internet (documents, emails, chats, images, videos etc) is often disseminated and replicated on different peers or servers. As a result, users lose the control of their content as soon as they release it. Furthermore most users are unaware of the information that is collected about them beyond requested data. It was shown that consumption data provided by smart meters to electricity providers is so accurate that it can be used to infer physical activities (e.g. when the house occupant took a shower or switched-on TV). Also, a picture taken by a user may reveal additional contextual information inferred from the background or the style of any associated text. For example, photos and videos taken with smart phones or cameras contain geo-location information. This may be considered as a potential source of information leakage and may lead to a privacy breach if used for location tracking or in conjunction with data retrieved from OSN (Online Social Networks). The risk becomes higher as the border between OSN and LBS (Location Based Services) becomes fuzzier. For instance, OSN such as FourSquare and Gowalla are designed to encourage users to share their geolocated data. Information posted on social applications such as Twitter can be used to infer whether or not an individual is at home. Other applications, such as Google Latitude, allow users to track the movements of their friends’ cellphones and display their position on a map. In addition to social applications, there are public sources of information that can be exploited by potential adversaries, such as the free geographic data provided by Google Maps, Yahoo! Maps and Google Earth. The danger is to move into a surveillance society where all our online and physical activities are recorded and correlated. Some companies already offer various services that gather different types of information from users. The combination and concentration of all these information provide a powerful tool to accurately profile users. For example, Google is one of the main third-party aggregators and tracks users across most web sites [30]. In addition, it also runs the most popular search engine and, as such, stores web histories of most users (i.e. their search requests), their map searches (i.e. their requests to the Google Map service), their images and so on [8]. Web searches have been shown to often be sensitive. Furthermore, Google is also going into the mobile and energy business, which will potentially allow it to correlate online profile with physical profiles.

The “Internet of the future” should solve these privacy problems. However, privacy is not something that
occurs naturally online, it must be deliberately designed. This architecture of Privacy must be updated and
reconsidered as the concept of privacy evolves and new technologies appear.

Even if our main goal is to develop general techniques with a potentially broad impact, Privatics will consider different and various concrete case studies to ensure the relevance and significance of its results. We plan to work on several case studies related to the Internet, online social networks (OSN), mobile services and smart spaces/environments (such as smart grids, smart houses,..), which correspond to challenging application domains with great impact on society.