Jon Howell and Stuart Schechter, both with Microsoft Research, say they conducted this research because they were concerned about applications able to access multimedia peripherals doing things like continuing to record video or sound even after the user's video-chat call is complete -- without the user's knowledge. The pair say existing technology doesn't take into consideration the potential dangers and privacy concerns with these sensor devices.
The tool they envision is basically a graphical user interface sensor that sits within the application display and provides an animated representation of how an application is gathering the user's data. It also shows whether a particular app is allowed to access a webcam, for example. It works on a "what you see is what they get" model, they say.
Howell and Schecter, who detailed the widget in a new research paper (PDF), say it would prevent malicious apps from abusing webcams, for instance. So when a user unknowingly installs a malicious video app that surreptitiously records data from his camera, microphone, or GPS sensor, the widget would alert the user: "The moment the application attempts to access these sensors, three sensor-access widgets will appear within the application, informing the user of the data that is about to be revealed," Schechter says. "The user notices the widgets appears, clicks on the first sensor, and will then select an option to deny the application access to all sensors. Having learned of the application's intentions, the user uninstalls the application and warns the friend who recommended it to her," for instance.
Such a tool might have come in handy in the recent case of the Lower Merion School District in Pennsylvania, which was tracking student laptops at home by activating the built-in webcams and, in some cases, recording video of students sleeping in their beds. The school district maintained it turned on the webcams only to locate missing laptops, and a recent report cleared the school system from charges of spying on students.
"Unlike computers of the '80s, computers today do so many things behind our backs that we don't understand. Stuff gets turned on and used ... we give it permission, but only vaguely and not really [understanding it]," says Bruce Schneier, CTO for BT Counterpane, who also noted the Pennsylvania school case is a real-world example of where a sensor widget could have made a difference. "Visual indicators make sense."
Schneier points to Apple's addition of location-sensor disclosure in the iPhone 4.0 OS as an example of similar functionality that's available in smartphones.
Microsoft Research's widget would trigger whenever an app tries to access a sensor -- microphone, webcam, etc. It would display an animated view of the data coming from the sensor, such as a video feed. "The widget is combined with a series of policies that the user can manage to determine whether applications can access sensor data," Microsoft Research's Schechter says. It could run as part of the OS or the browser, he says.
The researchers recommend a configuration that lets apps access only webcams, microphones, and GPSes after the user has had plenty of time to notice the app is about to gather data from them. That also lets the user disallow access if her prefers. In their research, they showed a countdown timer (5-4-3-2-1) with the user's face covered with animated window blinds showing that the app will soon be able to grab the video stream of him unless he disables it.
But the tricky balance would be providing just the right amount of digestible information without overwhelming the user with too much information. "The whole point of this [research] is to allow the user to assimilate lots of information easily and well," Schneier says. "How do you give them the information they need without overloading them is the basic user interface question."
Meanwhile, the Microsoft researchers won't speculate on any commercial potential for their research. But they say they are also interested in helping users manage an app's access to their machines' resources. "We believe this is an important issue given the emerging class of application platforms that can enforce restrictions on the resources that can be accessed by applications," Schechter says.
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