Students contribute to research and a safer digital environment2018-02-23
Our smartphones constantly leak personal information, and few of us know how this information is used. Computer Science students at Karlstad University have developed Kaudroid – a tool for investigating how apps use permissions to collect user data.
85 percent of people in Sweden owns a smartphone
According to the annual report on “Swedes and the Internet,” 85% of people in Sweden over the age of 12 had a smartphone in 2017. Many of the apps we install on these smartphones require permission to access certain data and functions. Yet it is often unclear how apps then use these permissions. As citizens of the digital world, we need to be able to feel certain that the data we produce are used securely.
“When we install applications on our smartphones, we often have to give permissions and allow access to more data than strictly necessary,” says Christian Pedersson, a student on the Master of Science in Computer Engineering programme at Karlstad University. “This may be because the developers of the app have used a standard that gives access to most things, maybe because of laziness or to hedge their bets. It can also be that someone exploits the situation to access our data for other purposes than we are aware of.”
Kaudroid - a tool for investigating app behavior
Christian Pedersson and his classmates Adrian Carlsson, Fredrik Persson and Gustaf Söderlund developed the Kaudroid tool. Kaudroid can be installed on smartphones and tablets to track different apps. Data are collected in a database that is analysed and presented via an interface. The interface shows for example when apps are actively collecting data and which types of data they collect.
“The most interesting aspect to look at is whether apps try to access the camera, GPS or microphone. This may mean that someone is trying to spy on the user,” says Christian.
A result of a student project
Kaudroid is the result of a project done as part of the Master of Science in Computer Engineering programme at Karlstad University. The project was conducted with Nurul Momen, doctoral student in Computer Science, as client. The idea is to use the results in his research on app behaviour and the handling of personal data.
“When users grant apps access to certain information on our smartphones, we enable the actor behind the app to identify us. We are working on ways of making users more aware of what it means when apps receive access to certain types of data on our smartphones,” says Nurul. “Kaudroid will be a great help in continuing my research, particularly in collecting data.”
A great opportunity for student-research collaboration
These projects give students the opportunity to apply their knowledge practically to a realistic assignment. Lothar Fristch, associate professor in Computer Science at Karlstad University, supervised this student project and thinks that it is a great way for researchers to get useful assistance in their projects, and for students to do something “real”.
“The students have received an assignment and based on that they formed a professional team. They had a project manager, a technical manager, a test manager and a visual specialist,” says Lothar Fritsch. “They have developed an important tool that allows us to check what actually happens to our data, so that we don’t leave everything to the developers.”
The students also agree that the projects present a good opportunity for practising their knowledge.
“It has been fun working with a researcher and having the opportunity to contribute to something bigger and real,” says Christian Pedersen, who was the team’s project manager. “We had meetings each week and presented our ongoing work both to the client and to our supervisor. The project in itself has been very interesting and we would’ve liked to continue and to do more. But it will be interesting to see the continuation through Nurul’s research.”