Cyber insecurity surrounding your personal online information could make you prey for cyberhacking.

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MIT Researcher Bids Solution To Online Privacy Woes

April 7, 2017

Earlier this week, President Donald Trump reversed internet privacy regulations adopted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under President Obama. The rules never went into effect but would have required internet service providers to acquire consent from consumers before using their browsing information for advertising and marketing. That leaves millions of internet users to wonder how they’ll be protected.

Frank Wang, computer science Ph.D student at MIT, may have a solution for wary online consumers. Wang is one of four other researchers working on a new encryption system called Splinter.

Here’s how it works:

When you open your internet browser, websites convert background information into what is called query, leaving you vulnerable to profiling and price gouging. Enter Splinter. Wang says the encryption system splits up a query into multiple parts and distributes those parts across copies of the same database on several servers. The servers then send back results that only agree with a recombination procedure that only the user knows. Wang says this process keeps web servers from learning anything about your query.

This isn’t the first proposed solution for disguising database queries; it’s been proposed before. But Wang argues that Splinter is different for several reasons.

“I think there has always been a trade-off between security and practicality and efficiency," he said. "I think this is the first system where we kind of find a very good sweet point where we can actually say … we have pretty good security and we're pretty practical."

There’s no plan in place for the oversight or regulation of Splinter. Wang says the individual user would be the honest broker. An internet user would be able to submit queries, and if one suspects a website of cheating, users should use their discretion to either remain on the site or find another one.

Wang says a bit of Splinter’s code — its core technology — is online and available for users. Researchers hope to use feedback to improve Splinter’s speed and efficiency. 

A recurring theme in cybersecurity seems to be a cycle of protections that are then challenged by hackers who find a way around them. Wang says this conundrum provides an opportunity for Splinter.  

“That's why there's a push toward kind of more work like mine, which is actually based on pretty strong mathematical guarantees," says Wang. 

Wang says Splinter isn’t currently available for sale but he and his team are working on an economic plan and hope the system will eventually be considered for a certain type of application. They’re also vying to take advantage of what Wang considers oversight by popular search engines like Google and Yahoo that could generate revenue from users who are willing to pay for a more protected version.

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