A fifth-year doctoral candidate at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies has earned a Best Paper Honorable Mention award from the Association of Computing Machinery’s Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing.

Yaxing Yao was awarded the honor based on his research paper describing how privacy issues affect the bystanders of Internet of Things devices, in addition to the direct owners and users of those smart devices. He will present the paper, “Privacy Perceptions and Designs of Bystanders in Smart Homes,” at the ACM conference in early November in Austin. Its co-authors are Justin Reed Basdeo of the Syracuse University School of Design; Oriana Rosata McDonough of the iSchool; and former iSchool faculty member Yang Wang.

‘Remarkable Achievement’

The Best Paper Honorable Mention award represents a “remarkable achievement,” according to iSchool Assistant Professor Bryan Semaan, who is familiar with Yao’s work.  

“I cannot stress enough how difficult it is to receive a best paper award at CSCW,” Semaan explains of the distinction. “In the computer sciences, and more specifically, within the human computer interaction domain, this is one of the top two conferences, and premier conferences accept only top papers. So, to be getting an honorable mention, it’s like the cream of the crop of the cream of the crop.”

Privacy for Bystanders

Yao says his research pushes people to think about the impact of privacy issues as they affect those who are secondarily exposed to Internet of Things devices in smart homes and other environments, like hotel rooms and Airbnb rental locations, rather than just the owners and direct users of the devices. He uses the term “bystanders” to refer to people who are unintentionally involved in the operation of those devices, such as other family members, guests, tenants, and passersby.

“This paper brings the discussion of bystander privacy to the table,” Yao adds. “When you think of smart home devices and privacy, it is necessary to consider not just the [direct] users, but also the bystanders and visitors that are sharing a device in a home or other location.”

Bystanders can experience privacy risks when they visit a friend’s home, rent an Airbnb room, or stay at a hotel that uses voice assistants in its rooms, Yao cites. Privacy risks exist for bystanders not just from those environments, but from the security and/or camera features the devices use, he writes. Risks include the possibilities of identity theft, Internet attacks, video recording, data collection and analysis, network hacking, and repurposing and sharing data with unknown third parties, Yao’s research contends.   

All About Control

The difference for bystanders of the devices versus their main users, Yao contends, is control. 

“[Bystanders] have no control, no idea who has access, no idea whether the images are stored or not, or who has access to the images, those kinds of things. Most of the time you may not even know the host. Your data is collected without you knowing anything about it, and in some cases, you don’t even know your data is being collected. It’s a huge privacy risk,” he continues.

The paper also studies factors that affect bystanders’ perceptions of their privacy risks, such as the social relationship of bystanders to the owners of the devices; the perceived level of trust between stakeholders; the length of stay; awareness of the device’s existence; the device’s behaviors; and the level of communication between owner and bystander regarding the device’s capabilities and controls.

Design Recommendations

Recommendations for specific design factors that can help alleviate bystander privacy concerns and better support various stakeholder privacy needs in smart device homes are also provided.

Yao says earning the CSCW distinction is gratifying for several reasons, especially since he hopes to obtain a faculty teaching position in the future. Not only was this the first research project he led from beginning to end (including the ideation, study of design factors, assessing findings, writing the paper, and all other aspects), it also involved guiding the work of two undergraduate students throughout the project, Yao says.

“The paper is also very meaningful to me more from the perspective that I can show that I’m able to lead undergraduate students individually to finish research and have it published,” he adds.

Feature photo: Ph.D. candidate Yaxing Yao. Photo by Charles Wainwright.