New grant expands studies to mitigate risks of public internet use
Roughly one in five people in the United States must rely on community-access computers, like those in public libraries, or smartphones for broadband internet access. But users of library computers are more vulnerable to security, privacy and surveillance threats than people who connect to the internet from home.
KU researchers coined the term “digital homelessness” to describe this disparity and, since 2017, the team has studied the risks and developed a practical solution to protect public-computer users. Thanks to a new two-year, $516,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the researchers can continue their work and refine a promising new security device.
“Every time somebody goes in and sits down at a library computer, they have to start anew. If you think about experiences of homelessness, it’s pretty similar to this. They don’t have personal space. They have very little privacy. They are vulnerable to being watched by others.”
The team is led by Bill Staples, professor of sociology and director of the Surveillance Studies Research Center; Perry Alexander, c’86, e’86, g’88, PhD’93, AT&T Foundation Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science and director of the Information and telecommunication Technology Center; and Drew Davidson, assistant professor of electrical engineering & computer science.
“Every time somebody goes in and sits down at a library computer, they have to start anew,” Staples says. “If you think about experiences of homelessness, it’s pretty similar to this. They don’t have personal space. They have very little privacy. They are vulnerable to being watched by others. If you wrote out a list of all the things that describe being homeless, this for them is their digital equivalent. Mostly it’s this idea that they have limits on how they can use this resource, and we’re trying to help them use it better.”
A 2017 Early-concept Grant for Exploratory Research from the NSF funded 40 interviews with library patrons and staff and led to the creation of a portable computing plug-in called PUPS, or public user privacy and security. The device, which resembles a USB stick, contains software that allows users to preserve their privacy and security settings and store passwords and other preferences, providing seamless, secure experiences on any public-access computer.
“We can essentially run an entire computer off of one of those sticks,” Staples says, “if you have enough memory on it. They could plug it in and basically it would run the computer exactly where it was when they stopped using it before. All your settings are the same.”
With the 2020 grant, the researchers will target new libraries in the Kansas City metro area and further evaluate and refine the PUPS device, with the potential to make it publicly available in a few years.
“Hopefully it will address some of the major challenges folks in the libraries face,” Staples says.