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Personal Privacy Assistant uses AI to learn users’ app preferences

Why it matters to you

Have too many apps to keep track of when it comes to what they can access? The Personal Privacy Assistant will learn your smartphone privacy preferences and adjust all your apps accordingly.

If you’ve been really paying attention to the world of mobile devices over the past decade, you may possibly have noticed that users have a habit of downloading apps for their phones. Apps are all well and great but they can also have a nasty habit of gathering data about their users and feeding it back to developers.

Fortunately, smartphone platform makers like Apple and Google have responded by giving users the ability to limit individual privacy settings within apps — deciding whether they want to hand over access to contact, location data, sensor information, camera access, and more. Increasingly, these can be toggled individually in a way that restores sovereignty to the user over their system.

Good, right? Well, kind of.

“The number of settings that we have to control has truly become overwhelming and unrealistic,” Norman Sadeh, a professor at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science, told Digital Trends. “A typical user will have 50 or more apps on his or her cellphone. Conservatively these apps may have controls for three different permissions. If you have to decide which of these permissions you’re willing to grant, that means that the average user has to configure 150 different permissions. Very, very few people are willing to do that.”

Along with colleagues, Sadeh is working on a solution in the form of the so-called Personal Privacy Assistant Project — an app designed to make privacy decisions more manageable.

“Different users will be happy with different permissions, but previous research has shown that you can predict an individual’s preferences by asking them a small number of questions,” he said. “Using AI and machine learning technology, we’ve been able to build a privacy assistant able to look at the apps you’ve got on your cellphone, ask a few questions, and make recommendations about how you may want to configure your settings.”

In a pilot study, users accepted almost 80 percent of the recommendations made by the privacy assistant — making this a potentially transformative way to deal with an important issue, without surrendering all of your free time to reading pages of terms and conditions.

An Android version of Personal Privacy Assistant is planned for release over the next few weeks, designed for rooted (that’s “jailbreaking” for the iOS community) users. Sadeh also said he hopes some of the big players in the mobile space may consider incorporated similar tools in future releases.

As the world moves toward body data-tracking wearable devices and smart homes, this topic will only become more critical.