Thu Do Detects Android Information Leaks to Help Users Control Data and Privacy

  • Thu Do '21 describes findings in her research to computer scientist Prof. Ed Novak in his research lab. Thu Do '21 describes findings in her research to computer scientist Prof. Ed Novak in his research lab. Image Credit: Deb Grove

 

Thu Do's research will have real-world applications,  helping to counteract the  malicious techniques that exploit smartphones’ security-vulnerable points to harvest users’ sensitive data that have emerged with the surging popularity of smartphones.

"Commonly, this data is used to target advertisements or identify users. However, in more malicious cases, it can be utilized to steal log-in credentials and perform financial fraud activities," says the computer science and math double-major. "Our research focus was to identify private information leaks on mobile devices, keep users well-informed about these leaks and assist them in controlling the transmission of their data."

We aimed to find out what Android applications are leaking users’ sensitive information to the Internet through developing an Android VPN application. Our main goal was to guarantee the app’s user-friendliness by making it a mobile-only solution and incorporating Machine Learning techniques to learn users’ preferences over time," adds Thu.

 

"Having a student work one-on-one with a professor provides a lot of benefits. Not only can the student work under close guidance of the professor and have their questions answered in a timely manner but he or she will also feel more encouraged to voice their opinion on a topic with the professor."

 

Thu became involved in the summer research project after joining Professor Novak’s directed group reading class which focused on dynamic information flow tracking. She wanted to do independent research because she believes independent research grants students a great opportunity to apply what they learn in class to real-life situations and further extends their knowledge and set of skills.

"I think a valuable skill I learned throughout the research is how to approach a problem. During research, we were faced with multiple obstacles. With the guidance of Prof. Novak, my research partner Phyo Thuta Aung and I gradually learned how to come up with possible solutions, weigh up their pros and cons, rank them accordingly and try them out," Thu comments. "In my opinion, being able to navigate through challenges is an indispensable skill in a career path or graduate studies."

As for  Thu's tips for future student researchers:  "Do not hesitate to ask your professors if they’re working on any projects that you might be interested in. Once you’ve got the opportunity, again, do not hesitate to ask for help, either from the professor or any fellow research students. Try your best to take advantage of available sources when researching, whether it is Google search engine or F&M’s access to academic resources."

 

  • Thu used the monitoring system on popular apps available on app stores. The researcher was searching for instances when the app leaks sensitive information over the internet. The figure above shows the number of leakage events detected for each of the sensitive information categories. Thu used the monitoring system on popular apps available on app stores. The researcher was searching for instances when the app leaks sensitive information over the internet. The figure above shows the number of leakage events detected for each of the sensitive information categories.