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According to research released in 2014 by the Pew Research Center, 81 percent of Americans feel “not very” or “not at all secure” while sharing private information with another trusted person or organization via a social media site.

Bo Luo, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Kansas’ Information and Telecommunication Technology Center, and Dongwon Lee, an associate professor at Penn State University’s College of Information Sciences and Technology, are now jointly looking into solutions that could reinforce personal privacy on popular social media sites. Their work could have significant implications for virtually all government agencies.

Many social networks users are blissfully unaware that shared information isn’t necessarily kept to their intended group of contacts and those parties with malicious intent may easily gain access. The researchers describe the problem as a “leaky boundary.” It’s a situation that’s both hard to discover and difficult to resolve.

The researchers note that large amounts of personal information are voluntarily posted to social networks and, in many instances, the number of viewers receiving the information is far larger than the data’s originator believes. Therefore, seemingly unimportant information sharing on social networks could leave users vulnerable to undesired information disclosures and information aggregation attacks. While a single message may only contain a tiny bit of information, by combining multiple posts from a single user, outside parties can uncover a number of important facts about the individual, the researchers believe.

Luo noted that studies have revealed a major disconnection between users’ privacy perceptions and their behaviors, a phenomenon known as the ‘privacy paradox’. “Most users do not take appropriate actions to protect their information, although they express concerns on the privacy of such information,” Luo said.

To lessen the threat and help protect the privacy of social media users, the researchers are developing a formal privacy model that aims to restrict information sharing to users’ immediate social circles. “For instance, a user’s high-school friends may constitute a circle, while his or her colleagues belong to a different circle, and his or her family members constitute yet another circle,” Luo said.

The same concept could be applied to government agencies. A user might, for instance, be limited to a circle limited to close colleagues or to circles of individuals at external organizations that the agency routinely interacts with.

The research team hopes that their planned real-time privacy enforcement tool will be able to offer privacy protection across several social media sites, automatically sensing leaky boundaries that enable confidential information to flow beyond immediate social circles. The researchers also plan to conduct user studies that could eventually help shrink the gap between users’ perceived and actual privacy on social media sites, and enable people to make better choices when sharing personal information.

For the time being, however, Luo recommends that users of leading social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, select the most stringent privacy protections available. “Users should always employ privacy protection functions provided by social network providers,” he said. “Users should also be conservative and think more about the possible consequences before they post any potentially sensitive information.”

The “leaky boundary” is a data vulnerability that most government agencies have yet to detect, much less resolve. Yet it’s an issue that isn’t likely to go away soon, at least not without user education and cooperation.

John EdwardsJohn Edwards writes about technology, and the people and organizations that turn promising ideas into tomorrow’s game-changing products and services. His expertise spans many technologies, including the Internet, e-marketing, mobility, cloud computing, robotics, semiconductors and cutting-edge laboratory research. John’s articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, CFO Magazine, CIO Magazine, Newsmax, Defense Systems, Defense News, IEEE Signal Processing Magazine, Law Technology News, Computerworld, RFID, and many others. For more information, visit:

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