“Our research on privacy and security was ahead of its time”

Jean-Yves Le Boudec, Jean-Pierre Hubaux, George Theodorakopoulos, Reza Shokri © 2021 EPFL

Jean-Yves Le Boudec, Jean-Pierre Hubaux, George Theodorakopoulos, Reza Shokri © 2021 EPFL

Ten years ago, as localization capabilities were becoming mainstream on smartphones, a group of EPFL researchers published a seminal paper at the IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy, the most prestigious conference in the field. Their paper has just received the test of time award. 

From social networks and shopping to communication and navigation, the proliferation of computers and smartphones in the past two decades means the Internet has become an integral part of our lives. As a result, with more and more data being used to ‘help’ us live digitally, security and privacy have become hot topics.

This wasn’t quite the case ten years ago when Professors Jean-Pierre Hubaux and Jean-Yves Le Boudec, with PhD student Reza Shokri and Post-Doctoral researcher George Theodorakopoulos, in the School of Computer and Communication Sciences, published their paper Quantifying Location Privacy.

The paper focused on the burgeoning use of personal communication devices and the subsequent serious concerns around privacy in general, and location privacy in particular, providing a formal framework for the analysis of Location-Privacy Protection Mechanisms (LPPMs).

Now, a decade after its publication, Quantifying Location Privacy has been selected for an IEEE Security and Privacy Test-of-Time Award, in recognition of its broad and lasting impact on both research and practice in computer security and privacy. Since 1980, the IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy has been the premier forum for presenting developments in computer security and electronic privacy, and for bringing together researchers and practitioners in the field.

Professor Hubaux believes the research is being recognized as security and privacy are issues that will only continue to grow, “When we started working on this topic, location capabilities were becoming mainstream on smartphones and this was opening a kind of Pandora’s box in terms of privacy. It was becoming far easier to track people because of massive data availability, and it was unprecedented. This was happening through the GPS receiver embedded in smartphones that we now take for granted.”

“Because privacy is such an abstract concept, it’s difficult to put numbers on it – it doesn’t have a unit, as such, so we came up with a way to measure it. Essentially, the idea was to say that privacy is the opposite of being successful when perpetrating an attack to locate people,” he continued.

“This is one of the cases where academic research perhaps has influenced the practice of the industry because many smartphones are now using LPPM, something that we analyzed and described in the paper,” added Professor Le Boudec. “By quantifying what we did, we developed an intellectual tool that could be used by others later and many others did use it.”

On reflection, both professors see the huge role that collaboration played in their research. Professor Hubaux works on privacy and security while Professor Le Boudec focuses on mathematical modelling of the Internet and at the time, given their offices were next door and their co-workers often discussed their work, teaming up seemed natural.

“This is what a rich academic environment can bring. Simply, people talk and have spontaneous conversations and informal discussions and this can lead to great work. It’s not clear that this paper would have happened under a COVID lockdown,” said Le Boudec.

And what can we look forward to next from these professors?

“I’m working on industrial networks in general, and particularly on time sensitive, secure networks used in the aerospace and car industries, and in factory automation as well as deterministic networks in smart electrical grids,” says Le Boudec.

Hubaux is continuing work on security and privacy, including in cellular networks and smartphones, but his focus has turned to another growing challenge – the protection of medical data. “We have essentially switched from location privacy to the protection of genomic data, and more generally of health data. This is proving to be an area with huge challenges and we are working with hospitals and related organizations on this topic. The tools we have developed have reached a level of maturity such that we have decided to launch a start-up to commercialize them.”

Author: Tanya Petersen