NSF-Funded Project Looks at Protecting Security of Marginalized and Vulnerable Populations

NSF-Funded Project Looks at Protecting Security of Marginalized and Vulnerable Populations
UF’s Department of Computer & Information Science & Engineering (CISE)

Using a $7.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), University of Florida engineers are leading a new effort to understand how groups like the poor, children and the elderly, and the disabled are marginalized by current technologies like smartphones and video conferencing and how current and future technologies can be designed to be more inclusive.

“Computing systems and services have become ubiquitous in modern society and are deeply embedded in people’s daily lives,” said Kevin Butler, principal investigator on the project and a professor in UF’s Department of Computer & Information Science & Engineering (CISE). “As practices and technologies for ensuring security and privacy of computing systems emerge in this rapidly changing technological landscape, the needs of marginalized and vulnerable populations have been largely unaddressed, as have the consequences of their exclusion.”

Butler, who is collaborating on the five-year project with researchers from the University of Washington and Indiana University, cited as an example the move to virtual courtrooms during the pandemic.

“This was intended as a means of providing remote and convenient access to justice for all,” he said. “However, it was soon evident that low socioeconomic status defendants, without access to Zoom and only able to call into the courtroom by phone, overwhelmingly lost their cases and never saw the judge throughout the process. Informed by real-world issues such as these, the team envisions a more equitable society where technology is created with everyone in mind.”

Ultimately, Butler said the goal is to change the fundamental approach to security and privacy in computing so these communities are considered the norm rather than the exception, or worse, an afterthought. 

Collaborator Kurt Hugenberg, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University, said “designers often have assumptions about who they are designing for — a so-called ‘default persona,’ which are essentially stereotypes about who the ’typical’ user is. This default persona often includes the majority population or privileged individuals and thus can often overlook the needs and capabilities of marginalized and vulnerable users.”

Butler said the team will also draw on the experiences of an expansive group of students with diverse backgrounds and knowledge.

“Our students will form the basis of this new generation of computing professionals who have these design principles in mind and are able to think about how to design beyond the default persona when they develop systems of their own.” 

The researchers intend to leverage the resources of the Florida Institute for Cybersecurity (FICS) Research in UF’s Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering, of which Butler is associate director. Other UF participants include CISE Professor Patrick Traynor, who has expertise in cellular and voice-based systems and payment systems, and whose own work involves improving life outcomes of economically marginalized and visually impaired populations; and Eakta Jain, a CISE associate professor, whose research involves human-computer interaction and virtual reality.

Forrest Masters, professor and associate dean for research and facilities, said “this project demonstrates the college’s deep commitment to creating equity and accessibility in technology and aligns with our vision of a future that is created with everyone in mind. Its outcomes will stretch beyond the walls of academia and will benefit consumers of technology from all walks of life.”

The project is part of NSF’s Secure and Trustworthy Cyberspace Frontiers program.

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