College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences

Clemson University project sharpens focus on privacy for voice-operated personal assistants


People who use voice personal assistants to do everything from shop to manage their bank accounts could soon be able to rest easier about privacy thanks to research at Clemson University.

The potential impact of the research is enormous. Long Cheng, a School of Computing assistant professor who is leading the project, said the number of voice personal assistants, or VPAs, is expected to hit 8.4 billion this year, a tally greater than the world’s population.

Long Cheng holds a voice personal assistant while talking with students in their McAdams Hall lab. Those pictured are (from left): Shuhao Zhang, Song Liao, Jingwen Yan, Mo Aldeen, Cheng, Ebuka Okpala and Jin Ma.

A voice personal assistant is an internet-connected device that listens to commands and can perform a wide variety of tasks, such as play music, check the weather and control other smart devices, including thermostats and lights. The VPA devices are made by various companies, and many of the voice-apps, sometimes called skills, are created by third-party developers.

“This project is to ensure privacy compliance and content safety for smart-speaker systems, also called voice personal assistants,” Cheng said. “Many households have at least one such device, but many people have privacy and content-safety concerns.”

Some studies show that privacy concerns could be the main factor that deters new users from adopting VPA technology, he said. Parents have also expressed concern that children could inadvertently access adult content on VPAs, Cheng said.

To help address such concerns, Cheng and his team are working on ways to make VPAs safer and more private. They are creating tools that will let users, especially those who are visually impaired, know about the privacy policies of voice apps just by talking to the assistant.

They are also working on a clever system that can automatically check if voice apps are following the rules for privacy and fairness. This tool could be handy for users who want to make sure their apps are safe, and it might help government agencies keep an eye on the privacy practices of lots of apps all at once.

Plus, they are planning to make tools that developers can use to make sure their voice apps are privacy-friendly right from the start.

Cheng and his team are conducting the research as part of a CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation.

He expects the research to generate articles in high-quality conferences and journals and said this VPA-privacy-themed project provides an excellent platform for both undergraduate and graduate students to conduct research. Among those who have worked on the project is Song Liao, who recently received his Ph.D. in computer science from Clemson and expects to begin in the fall as an assistant professor at Texas Tech University.

As part of the award, Cheng is also implementing a plan aimed at educating the next generation of cybersecurity researchers and attracting underrepresented groups into the field. Cheng’s efforts include, for example, a VPA-based Capture-The-Flag game and GenCyber summer camps at North Carolina A&T State University and Prairie View A&M University.

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