Undergraduate Research Accepted to Prestigious Conference

Feb 15 2015

After Professor Keith Ross, Dean of Engineering and Computer Science at NYU Shanghai, extended a research opportunity to his students, sophomore Kelvin Liu, an intended Computer Science major from Wayzata, Minnesota, US, took the initiative by the end of Spring 2014. The focus of the research was the concern of social media platforms and how parents often compromise the online privacy of their children.

"Doing research as an undergraduate has always been a goal of mine," said Liu, who keeps an open mind about his future and plans to return to the United States in pursuit of graduate school or an immediate career.

In collaboration with Ross and Tahila Minkus, a PhD student in Computer Science and Engineering from NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering, their research paper, "Children Seen But Not Heard: When Parents Compromise Children's Online Privacy," was accepted to the prestigious 24th International World Wide Web Conference (WWW 2015). The conference's acceptance rate is 14 percent.

The research reports that on Facebook and Instagram, many adults publicly reveal personal information about their children to online services, failing to realize this information can fall into the hands of data brokers, local predators, and surveillance authorities.

Liu, Ross, and Minkus conducted a large-scale study using software capable of estimating ages of people in photos. The software enabled them to examine 2,383 random users on Facebook and 1,089 users on Instagram for evidence of children and infants in public photo albums.

Linking the data extracted and inferred from the social networks with publicly available voter registration records, they showed that data brokers can automatically generate profiles that include a child's name, birth date, and exact street address, as well as each parent's name, age, employment, and political and religious affiliations.

A child does not require his or her own registered social network account for these automatic profiles to build up over the course of a lifetime. Data brokers sell profiles to advertisers, prospective employers, university student recruiters, match-making services, and other individuals, posing a serious threat to the privacy of a new generation.

After surveying 357 adult Facebook users and analyzing 1,089 Instagram users regarding behaviors and attitudes toward posting children's information online, the study's authors posited a noteworthy solution.

"We make recommendations for privacy-conscious parents and suggest an interface change through which Facebook can nudge parents toward better stewardship of their children's privacy."

Photo by Charlotte San Juan