School of Business Champions Privacy Research

Professors Lisa Baranik and Liyue Fan began their collaboration with a Dean’s Research Award intended to promote interdisciplinary research. Baranik, in the management department, studies vocational stressors among refugees. Fan, in digital forensics, works in privacy protection. Together, they received a $300,000 National Science Foundation grant to encourage research participation by addressing privacy concerns related to smartphones.


Lisa Baranik’s research on the psychological effects of federal government furloughs was covered in dozens of publications, including the Washington Post. Her work on vocational stressors among refugees has been similarly covered by news outlets.

For Dr. Baranik’s next project, a study on barriers to refugee employment, she will review smartphone data such as GPS locations, text message logs, app usage and web history. However, it is difficult to get refugees to agree to participate in research.

Most people would be reticent to hand over access to their phones and refugees are a less trusting group than the general population. “Refugees are private people because of what they have gone through,” said Baranik, “they are coming from cultures of mistrust.” They left their home countries to flee conflict or persecution and may have feared for their lives and the lives of their families. They are learning who they can trust as they adjust to living in the U.S. To study the refugee population, Baranik is looking for ways to encourage research participation.

Privacy Protection

The Grant
National Science Foundation Early-Concept Grant for Exploratory Research: Secure and Trustworthy Cyberspace

The Research
Privacy-Preserving Mobile Data Collection for Social and Behavioral Research 
Liyue Fan is known for her work in privacy protection of individually contributed data. She previously received a National Science Foundation grant to develop privacy-enhancing technology for image data.

With more studies incorporating smartphone data, individual privacy has become a serious concern for researchers. Although they maintain the confidentiality of their participants, participants may have privacy concerns about sharing personal smartphone information. Up to now there has been no way to limit the amount of cell phone information shared with researchers. Dr. Fan plans to change that.


Fan and Baranik met as incoming faculty members in 2016. In 2018, they applied for and won a School of Business award for interdisciplinary research, which led to the NSF grant for their current project, “Privacy-Preserving Mobile Data Collection for Social and Behavioral Research.” As a result, Fan will have a test group for her privacy protection data-collection technique and Baranik will have the means to address the privacy concerns of her research participants.

Re-inventing the Research Methodology

They are creating procedures and protocols to encourage research participation. The first step is relationship building, training the refugee group in individual privacy protection including how to create strong passwords. The next step will be querying other researchers as to their needs.

Currently, researchers use informed consent; a blanket authorization that permits access to the participant’s data. Fan has proposed “personalized privacy” that allows individual participants to hide certain information from the study. For instance, researchers may have access to GPS locations while the participant is at work, but not at home. Fan will build methods that work with Beiwe, a popular digital open source research platform.

Fan and Baranik will test these privacy-preserving data protection methods as they examine employment barriers to refugees. If the privacy protections are agreeable to refugees, they should be agreeable to a more trusting population. It is expected that the protocol will be adopted by other researchers. A secondary outcome is identifying predictors of successful refugee employment.