Free tools empower public in bid for online privacy
In a boost to European data-protection efforts, an EU-funded project has developed free tools to help internet and smartphone users monitor, assess and control their privacy when using apps and accessing websites.
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Protecting personal information while surfing the web or using apps is a concern for many of us. But successfully shielding such data can be a struggle.
The EU-funded PRIVACY FLAG project tackled this challenge and established a user-friendly monitoring and protection system that includes free tools for the public.
PRIVACY FLAG experts in law and information and communications technology (ICT) developed the Universal Privacy Risk Area Assessment Methodology to investigate the compliance of apps, websites and Internet of Things deployment with EU, Swiss and US data protection laws.
‘This methodology can assess the privacy risk level in a systematic and objective manner, not just gut feeling,’ says project coordinator Ioannis Chochliouros of the Hellenic Telecommunications Organization in Greece. ‘The extent and scope of our tools are not limited to web browsers.’
The developers created, among other things, a smartphone application, a web browser add-on and a public website in six European languages, all connected to a shared knowledge database, to help citizens monitor and control their privacy.
The evaluation tools which include an automatic alert mechanism whereby people can be notified of privacy breaches are available for free download on the PRIVACY FLAG website. Companies, however, are likely to be charged for in-depth privacy risk audits, recommendations and potential labelling.
Built on a crowdsourcing model to design and select the best solution to protect privacy and data ownership, PRIVACY FLAG has also been instrumental in promoting user awareness of how privacy can be increased and how it affects citizens and society.
‘Crowdsourcing dramatically increases the number of potentially good ideas provided by a large number of sources and filters them to find the best solutions,’ says Chochliouros. ‘Our key ambition has been to utilise the power of the crowd combined with ICT and legal expertise to enable users to monitor, control and increase their level of privacy in three targeted application domains: websites, smartphone applications and Internet of Things deployments in smart cities.’
Beyond the EU
The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation protects citizens’ rights within its borders. PRIVACY FLAG, in a bid to expand this protection, created a voluntary system known as the Privacy Pact that enables companies outside the EU to sign up to and show their commitment to European standards.
Researchers believe that improvements in privacy protection may prove to be of competitive advantage for European industry.
‘PRIVACY FLAG provides positive incentives and competitive advantages to companies developing privacy-friendly solutions,’ Chochliouros adds. ‘This can impact the market penetration and market shares in favour of privacy-friendly companies.’
The project could also have a positive environmental impact because it contributes to reducing unwanted data flow on the internet and mobile phone networks. Currently, many apps are uploading and exploiting data not required for the app itself. Reducing this data flow could save energy and, ultimately, lead to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.