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The “crowds” behind Mechanical Turk tend to come to the same kinds of general conclusions about questionable privacy settings as computer scientists do, says Hong. The researchers are now studying whether people will avoid downloading apps after receiving such warnings, and hope to have a commercial app that provides crowdsourced opinions on privacy settings by the end of this year. It’s one of many ways that crowdsourcing in general is becoming a promising avenue for improving mobile security, says Landon Cox, a computer scientist at Duke University and codeveloper of an app privacy monitoring tool that tracks how Android apps use sensitive information.

Although the CMU-Rutgers research prototype is built for Android, which has 450,000 apps, the system theoretically could complement existing services, including Apple’s, that screen apps for known malicious software. This crowdsourced system might warn people about apps that may not technically be malware but are still not privacy friendly, says Janne Lindqvist, a Rutgers University researcher professor who is one of the project leaders.

The project has larger ambitions, too: to understand what apps are actually doing once installed and solicit crowd opinions on those aspects. The researchers have a program in development, code-named Squiddy, that examines apps, screen by screen, to see what data they access and what remote servers they contact. A companion program, code-named Gort, then presents this as an intuitive infographic describing these behaviors to crowdsourcers. (A paper describing the work is still under review.) Lindqvist says the cost of the service could be covered by the fees already extracted from app developers for publishing an app.

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Credit: Carnegie Mellon University and Rutgers University

Tagged: Communications, privacy, Android app

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