By: Diane Stirling
(315) 443-8975

School of Information Studies (iSchool) Assistant Professor Yang Wang has been awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to conduct research on mental privacy models and the way those models may influence the privacy decisions and behaviors of online users.

The grant, in the amount of $159,586, was awarded to Dr. Wang as principal investigator on the project. It will fund research to be conducted over a two-year period, starting this September and running through August of 2017.

This project will involve the investigation of two main concepts related to privacy. One concept is determining individualized mental models of privacy, research that will involve investigating mechanisms and building tools to help people make privacy-aware decisions in different online contexts. The other area is assessing the potential of creating a universal privacy dashboard for Internet users. The research will determine if a universal dashboard could help people better understand their personal privacy preferences and behaviors, thus enabling them to better manage their privacy on the Internet.

A dashboard approach to establishing online privacy “would enable people to monitor, reflect, and if technically feasible, directly change their privacy decisions,” Wang noted. It could provide “a principled way to provide transparency regarding an individual's mental privacy models and behaviors.” The research would assess the models and behaviors exhibited in two example domains: online tracking and Android app permissions, Wang said.

The issue of Internet privacy is one that is highly pertinent in today’s society, Wang added.

“Technology advances have brought numerous benefits to people and society, but also heightened risks to privacy. People often have differing mental models of privacy or preferences that are context-dependent. However, it has been shown that people's actual decisions or behaviors often divert from their stated privacy preferences. This project will examine whether people will make privacy-preserving decisions when their individualized mental models and their decision choices are presented to them on the same user interface,” he added.

There are two main goals for the research, Wang outlined. First, he said, “We'd like to achieve a deeper understanding of how individuals think about their privacy in different online contexts.” Second, he added, “is a privacy ‘mirror’ that helps people better understand themselves regarding how they think about and act on privacy. And in turn, we hope this better self-awareness can help people make more informed decisions about privacy. If individual people can better manage their online privacy, the society as a whole can better ?protect privacy as a fundamental human right.” 

“Dr. Wang’s work is perfectly timed and aligned with current trends in social media, cyber security, and user-based design,” noted iSchool interim dean Jeffrey Stanton. “Because many people take their privacy for granted until it has been breached, this research provides the possibility that users could take a more proactive approach to controlling their personal information.”

Wang said the research project ultimately is designed to inform Internet standards and governmental policies on Internet privacy, while also resulting in the creation of tangible designs that can be integrated into mobile app markets and web browsers. In addition, It will  have important educational and training benefits at the undergraduate and graduate levels, as well, he noted. The research efforts will include privacy-related class projects and modules and training opportunities “that will help students to become more aware of potential privacy issues in technologies, and to develop technical skills in building privacy-enhancing mechanisms.”

Wang is sole principal investigator on the project. iSchool doctoral-degree student Corey Jackson contributed significantly to the development of the NSF proposal, Wang said.