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20. November 2015

Saarbrücken IT-Security researchers receive 8.4 Million Euros for DFG Collaborative Research Center on privacy research

With the technology we have today, it is almost impossible to protect our privacy in the internet. As a user, we cannot oversee which consequences come from our actions in the worldwide web. That is what the Saarbrücken IT-Security researches and Professor Michael Backes want to change. In a Collaborative Research Center, that has been approved by the German Research Foundation (DFG), the scientists want to better understand the mechanisms in the worldwide data jungle. They also want to develop methods that can help protect anyone’s privacy, without that person needing the technical know-how to do so. Therefore, around 8.4 Million Euros will flow into the Saarbrücken Computer Sciences during the first four years.

“Today it is also almost impossible, for professionals even, to keep an overview over which personal data flows to whom while underway in the web. The high computer performance makes it even easier to scour through huge databases for detailed information and to link personal data to different sources” says Michael Backes, Professor of IT-Security and Cryptography at the University of Saarland. Therefore, companies have an easy game to find out the interests and wishes of their customers. But also intelligence agencies and criminal gangs are spying as well. “As a result, our first goal is to make visible how each user views their privacy. What, for example, does the internet know about me at this very moment? Can it exactly determine where I am, does it know which doctor I visited or how my travel plans look like?” Backes lists as examples.

It also deals with the question, what can companies find out about people? If they, for example, connect user accounts from various platforms together. “The combination of entirely different data sets, depicts one of the biggest problems for digital privacy of our time. Such combinations enable profiling, which causes single users to quickly become “transparent customers”, whom’s lifestyle habits and preferences are shone down to every detail.” explains Backes. Even apps for smartphones are diligent data collectors that has unrestricted access to all of the owner’s personal contacts. It offers malicious attackers an easy gateway. “Hence, in the new Collaborative Research Center we want to analyse in which ways private data are accumulated, spread and are legally/illegally utilised. Thereby, social networks play a considerable role.“ states Michael Backes. There are millions of pictures and videos being interchanged on social networks, these of which can be assigned to single people. “We want to investigate which critical information can be derived from these multimedia data forms. For example, if people can be identified alone by the way they walk or the typical gestures they make with their hands. Or if the social relationships in a group can be automatically determined.” explains the researcher, whom also directs the Competence Center for IT-Security CISPA.

The Saarbrücken scientists don’t want to just analyse how privacy today is being threatened. They also want to develop mechanisms that will help single users, without technical prior knowledge, protect their own data. “A lot of people can be captured, without permission, on a selfie and can then find themselves on a social network. In this case, a technology supported by the phone could be useful, where it would directly make these people unidentifiable the moment the picture is captured.” Backes names as an example. It should also be made possible, that all users can decide which data from mobile applications are used to which specific purpose. “Right now it is usually the case that people have to disclose way too much information to actually be able to use a software.” says Michael Backes.

DFG-Collaborative Research Center “Methods and Tools for Understanding and Controlling Privacy”

Involved in the new Saarbrücken Collaborative Research Center on the topic “Methods and Tools for Understanding and Controlling Privacy” are several professors from the University of Saarland, as well as scientists from Max-Planck-Institute for Informatics, Max-Planck-Institute for Software Systems and the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI). Furthermore, two scientists from the University of Luxembourg and the Research Institute LORIA in Nancy are contributing. The German Research Foundation are providing an estimated 8.4 Million Euros for the first funding period of 4 years.

More Information:
Website of the DFG (German)

Questions answered:

Prof. Michael Backes

University of Saarland

Chair for Information security and Cryptography

Telephone: +49 (0)681/302 3249

Regarding radio journalists: You can conduct telephone interviews in studio quality with scientists at the University of Saarland through broadcasting codec (IP Connection with direct dialling or over ARD-Sternpunk 106813020001). Please contact the press office with interview requests (0681/302-3610).

Press release in printable version:
Press release in printable version (German, pdf)

Photo: Oliver Dietze