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Business Professor Lands NSF Grant to Improve Data Privacy

National Science Foundation Awards Liyue Fan

Liyue Fan is an assistant professor in the School of Business.  

ALBANY, N.Y. (May 10, 2018) – The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Liyue Fan from the School of Business a $175,000 grant to develop privacy-enhancing technology for image data.

Fan, an assistant professor in the department of information security and digital forensics, is working to create software that can more powerfully blur images than mainstream graphic editors like Adobe Photoshop.

Nearly all popular social media sites offer users the capability of blurring sensitive information on their photos before publishing, but such photo manipulations offer only rudimentary protection, according to Fan.

She said that blurring a person’s face, for example, might fool the human eye, but that artificial intelligence can identify the original image up to 96 percent of the time.

“With existing tools, like Photoshop, the results are ‘deterministic’ where there is a unique association with the input and output,” Fan said. “The pixels are merely aggregated, and artificial intelligence knows how to reverse this process.”

Instead of shuffling an image’s pixels in a predictable way, the technology that Fan is developing will implement randomness to ensure that the image cannot be reconstructed.

Fan said the software, which will eventually become a downloadable app, could help anyone seeking stronger privacy protection for their sensitive images.

She said most people might not realize just how much personal information can be inferred from their photos – from location, to level of income and health choices – putting many at risk of security breaches or even physical harm.

“Celebrities like Hilary Duff and Kim Kardashian were robbed after posting vacation photos; if you tell people where you are, you create chances for them to harm you,” Fan said.

Zachary McVicker, a digital forensics major, is working with Fan on the two-year project. McVicker recently presented their research at the Undergraduate Research Conference on April 27.

“This project has given me some fantastic opportunities, in both learning more about the research method, as well as how much information can be gleaned from a single photograph,” McVicker said.

Fan received the grant through the Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) Research Initiation Initiative (CRII), a program designated to help junior researchers establish research independence within their first academic position after having received a Ph.D.

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