RIT sustainability professor will lead NSF grant studying data privacy on home devices

Research will consider effects of acceleration toward more telework and mobile working

Decreased reuse of electronics has economic, social, and environmental impacts, according to Eric Williams, a GIS professor who will lead an interdisciplinary NSF study designed to better understand and manage data privacy on home devices.

Eric Williams, a professor in Rochester Institute of Technology’s Golisano Institute for Sustainability (GIS), will lead a $496,027 National Science Foundation project for a study integrating research and outreach activities designed to better understand and manage data privacy on home devices.

The three-year study, titled “Managing Privacy and Environment for Used and End-of-Life Electronic Devices,” will look at how the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the transition toward increased telework and mobile working and resulting implications on data security and e-waste.

“COVID implies that personal devices and home networks have moved from occasional to pervasive professional use, and can now be classified as critical infrastructure,” Williams said. “Managing the security of these networks has become a national priority.”

According to the GIS professor, progress toward the Internet of things has led to consumers owning an expanding array of devices that contain personal video, audio, and other information. End-of-life therefore poses a large security risk if disposed-of devices still contain sensitive data and end up in the wrong hands.

In addition, data security is also important for sustainability, Williams noted.

“A consumer concerned about privacy may store a device or recycle it, instead of selling it to be reused,” he said. “Many devices turned in for recycling are not reused because the device and data cannot readily be cleared for a new user.”

“Decreased reuse has economic, social, and environmental impacts,” Williams added. “Data security and end-of-use are therefore fundamentally intertwined, but currently poorly understood and managed.”

The study also will involve integrated research and outreach activities to better understand and manage the privacy of data on home devices. For home-consumer electronics, consumers will be surveyed on privacy and end-of-use behaviors. Personally Identifiable Information (PII) stored on a wide variety of devices will be assessed and analyzed for privacy risk. In addition, the usability of data wiping protocols will be evaluated to clarify how easy and effective it is to remove personal data from different devices.

Williams noted that the result of these activities will lead to the development of a model predicting security and end-of-use behaviors for different consumer groups. “This model will be used to suggest effective interventions to improve privacy and sustainability outcomes, including improving the usability of wiping protocols or educating consumers,” he said.

The project is an interdisciplinary collaboration between GIS and RIT’s Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences (GCCIS), along with the Cheriton School of Computer Science at the University of Waterloo in Canada. Tae Oh, a professor in the School of Information at GCCIS, and Stacey Watson from Waterloo bring usability and data security expertise to the project team, Williams said.

Post-study outreach will include providing results to stakeholders in industry and consumer groups engaged in standards development. In addition, a consumer guide to security and end-of-use websites will be developed and distributed widely through the iFixit website. Study results also will be communicated to K-12 summer camps held for high school students from under-represented groups.

In addition to engaging undergraduate and graduate students in the privacy assessment and usability evaluations, an exhibit on security and end-of-use will be developed for the Imagine RIT: Creativity and Innovation Festival, which brings tens of thousands of attendees to the RIT campus each spring.

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