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MIT, Harvard researchers push new way for users to control access to personal data

Matt Hamblen | March 21, 2016
Called Sieve, the approach could pose challenges to companies storing users' personal data and government searches

Cryptography researchers at MIT and Harvard have developed software called Sieve that is designed to help users keep track of encrypted personal data and better manage it in the cloud.

The Web infrastructure concepts behind Sieve could have significant implications for government searches of data, such as in the Apple-FBI case, or for companies using personal data from fitness bands and other devices for marketing and other purposes.

With Sieve, a Web user on a smartphone, smartwatch or other device could store personal data in encrypted form in the cloud, according to an MIT statement on Friday.

Then, when any app wants to use specific data items, like a name or address, it would send a request to the user, and, if granted, would receive a secret key to decrypt only those items kept in the cloud account of the user. In addition, if the user wanted to revoke the app's access, Sieve would re-encrypt the data with a new key.

The idea for Sieve first came more than a year ago to Frank Wang, a Ph.D candidate in computer science at MIT. Wang was using his Fitbit and was concerned about where his fitness data was stored and how it would be accessed by him or by others, he said in an interview. "I don't want people to hack my data and get more than I want," he said.

"With Sieve, we want users to securely store and selectively access that data for Web services and Web apps. We want the data to remain secure and give subsets to Web services. In theory that's easy, but in practice, it's difficult," Wang said. "With Sieve, the user has more control over how his or her data flows to different parties."

Wang spoke by phone just prior to giving a talk on Friday about Sieve at the Usenix Symposium on Networked Systems Design and Implementation on Santa Clara, Calif. Wang, 26, has worked to develop Sieve with MIT associate professors of electrical engineering and computer science Nickolai Zeldovich and Vinod Vaikuntanathan as well as James Mickens, associated professor of computer science at Harvard University.

Apps used on everything from smart thermostats to smartphones "collect a lot of user data, and you don't know what the [app developer] will do with it," Wang said. "Our goal is to say it's the users' data, and they should say how it's used."

He gave one practical example of how Sieve would work. If a sleep monitor has sleep data that is better than what a fitness band could provide, a user could permit the sleep data to be ported to the fitness band, which might give better tips on fitness than the sleep monitor would provide. "It makes it very easy with all the data in one location," Wang said.

 

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