University researchers reveal social media privacy breakthrough

9 Mar 2015

Researchers from Irish software research group Lero and the Open University have developed a system that could be used to strengthen user privacy on social networks like Twitter and Facebook.

Their project, developed as part of a European Research Council grant worth €2.5m, was selected from 500 entries.

Post-doctoral researcher Dr Mu Yang presented the project today to Members of the Houses of Parliament at Westminster under the SET for Britain programme, which is designed to showcase groundbreaking research by early career researchers.

The leader of the project, Lero researcher Bashar Nuseibeh, who is professor of software engineering at the University of Limerick and a professor of computing at The Open University, explained that more than 1.3bn active Facebook users share more than 30bn pieces of information every month.

“The big problem is that they have limited control over where this data ends up. Once information is sent to selected friends, users lose control over it.”

Nuseibeh suggests most users use default privacy settings, which may lead to information being shared to unintended members of social network groups regardless of their variable risk profiles.

“Even more privacy aware users may still make wrong sharing decisions due to a lack of information about privacy threats and the consequences of sharing.”

Adaptive sharing model

Lero and The Open University have developed the first phase of an adaptive sharing model that recommends the appropriate audience for any particular posting.

The model incorporates metrics for trading off the privacy risk against the social benefit derived from sharing.

“Our research has the potential to benefit not only individual users who want to protect their privacy, but also the online social network providers themselves who may need to respond more effectively to user concerns or future regulatory requirements,” added Nuseibeh.

The research paper, entitled Adaptive Sharing for Online Social Networks: A Trade-off between Privacy Risk and Social Benefit, was presented at the 13th International Conference on Trust, Security and Privacy in Computing and Communications in Beijing, China, in September 2014, where it received the Best Paper Award.

Social media shock image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years