Privacy Warrior

Athina Markopoulou shares insights on privacy and data transparency

Athina Markopoulou

Feb. 15, 2023 - In Greek mythology, Athena is the goddess of wisdom and war. UCI’s Athina Markopoulou aspires to live up to her namesake. Her weapons are computers and keyboards rather than shields and swords but no less effective in her fight: protecting data privacy.

Since arriving at UCI in 2006, Markopoulou has made her mark at the school and in her discipline. A professor of electrical engineering and computer science, Markopoulou is director of ProperData, a five-year, $10 million NSF project. The ProperData Center addresses the urgent need for protection of personal data flow on the internet. Under her leadership, a multidisciplinary team of researchers is building fundamentals, creating new technologies and informing policy to improve the transparency and control of personal data.

How would you describe your research?

My research is about privacy and data transparency. Simply put, we want to shed light on where personal data are sent, how they are used, and give more control to people and regulators over that data flow.

In my group and at ProperData, we are developing tools – methodologies, software, architectures – that allow consumers, policymakers and regulators to understand and control data collection, sharing and use practices. We also interact with privacy policy experts, nonprofits and regulatory agencies to exchange information and make our tools available for auditing and enforcement.

Why is this important?

When people access an online service (via browsers, smartphone apps, smart TVs, smart home devices, etc.), their personal data are stored, shared and used by several different entities, behind the scenes. Even activities in the physical world, such as being within range of WiFi or other mobile devices, surveillance cameras, etc., are routinely recorded and become part of our online profiles. These data are then used to provide personalization and other services (location-based services, for example, track location). However, the main drive behind this data collection is monetization via targeted advertising, risk assessment and other methods. This data tracking and monetization ecosystem is widely known as “surveillance capitalism.” It is pervasive, complex and nontransparent.

What is the impact of your research?

The public’s attitude about privacy has changed dramatically. Fifteen years ago, we thought nothing of giving away personal data in exchange for free services. Today, we understand that collection, sharing and use of data affects not only individuals, but also our society as a whole. These practices affect how information spreads and how our democracy works. They affect patterns of engagement and our mental health. They have security and safety implications, such as data breaches leading to identity theft, ransomware and worse. They enable profiling, which in turn enables differential treatment of people and resource allocation. This goes beyond online advertising – like qualifying for loans or employment. In fact, much of the privacy community today is emphasizing fairness and algorithmic bias. Data feeds the training of machine-learning algorithms, which increasingly decide many aspects of our life.

Lawmakers are pushing data-protection laws, such as the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA)/California Privacy Rights Act (CPRA), General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in Europe and several sector- and state-specific laws on emerging technologies, like facial recognition. However, we need researchers and technologists to inform them and provide tools for compliance, auditing and enforcement.

What do you hope to accomplish with the ProperData Center?

ProperData completed its second year in October 2022. We are training a cohort of 50 to 60 graduate students and postdocs who will contribute to the privacy research community. Many collaborations have begun, and we know we have more impact talking to stakeholders as a group rather than as individual researchers.

I would like to see ProperData become the go-to place for privacy-enhancing technologies – where consumers, developers and regulatory agencies look for principled approaches to understanding data collection and use, and for learning to take control over it.

California is leading the country in privacy laws with the landmark CCPA and the upcoming CPRA. These laws specify consumer rights and company duties, and they dictate data collection, usage and sharing practices. ProperData can become the premier privacy research center that informs those developments. There is also commercialization potential for our technologies. Beyond end users, companies and regulators can benefit from using our tools for auditing and compliance.

What advice could you offer people about privacy and data security?

It is such an uneven battle right now between the end user and the “surveillance capitalism” ecosystem. Current practices are based on the framework of notice-and-consent, where companies display a long, incomprehensible privacy policy, and we have to agree if we want to use their services.

This being said, people should follow common-sense good practices. For example, take cybersecurity training (learn to change passwords, use VPN, etc.). Opt out as much as possible from data collection. Use an adblocker on browsers, including privacy-preserving browsers and search engines. Uninstall apps you don’t need. Restrict permissions of apps. Restrict privacy controls on social media. Think twice before using virtual assistants or smart home gadgets; and if you do, check all privacy controls and settings. Go over kids’ devices and check all their apps and settings. And, if we (ProperData) ask you to participate in user studies, exercise your privacy rights under CCPA/CPRA, or test our privacy-enhancing tools, and then please consider participating!

– Tonya Becerra