Prof Mohan Kankanhalli: Safeguarding our digital life

Prof Kankanhalli wants to find new solutions that enable big data to do all the good things it can do without compromising the privacy of individuals’ personal data

Most are probably aware that technology giants like Facebook, Google and others are constantly gathering valuable information about us as we travel around the web. For this reason, security technologists compare walking around with a smartphone to carrying a tracking device 24/7. The irony is that while most of us will say that we care deeply about protecting our data, we continue to give our information away.

Researchers call this the “privacy paradox”. On one hand we do it because we see immediate benefits, and believe that our future selves will suffer no consequences. Yet, when explicitly asked by a company for information, we may only agree to provide data if we can be guaranteed that our privacy will not be compromised. 

While these two interests are seemingly at odds, Professor Mohan Kankanhalli, Dean of NUS Computing and Provost's Chair Professor of Computer Science, believes this need not be the case. In fact, his research is focused on developing technologies that enable true privacy to be attained without compromising the utility of our digital resources.

“With such valuable information involved, cloud servers and data delivery networks have become targets for attacks, such as data tampering or theft. Their vulnerability is compounded by the fact that much of the data stored is created externally, outside organisational firewalls,” said Prof Kankanhalli. “Therefore, robust solutions are needed to ensure privacy and security of data, without reducing its usability.”

Data anonymisation, which entails obfuscating, or removing personally identifiable information from data sets, is currently used for privacy purposes. This allows the people whom the data describes, to remain anonymous. However, this method is known to be susceptible to attacks. Therefore, the challenge is to come up with better alternatives.

“Nonetheless, the implications shouldn’t be erecting barriers. It’s not a case of big data ‘or’ data protection, or big data ‘versus’ data protection. Embedding privacy and data protection into big data analytics enables not only societal benefits from unlocking the value of data, but also organisational benefits like creativity, innovation and trust. We should focus on finding new solutions to enable big data to do all the good things it can do,” said Prof Kankanhalli.

Future-proofing our digital life 

To that end, Prof Kankanhalli and his colleagues have recently established the NUS Centre for Research in Privacy Technologies (N-CRiPT), a successor of the NUS Sensor-enhanced Social Media (SeSaMe) Centre. N-CRiPT will study privacy comprehensively, that is, to examine the entire life cycle of structured data (e.g. health and financial records), as well as unstructured data (image, video, social media and sensor data). N-CRiPT is funded by the National Research Foundation via the Smart Systems Research Programme Office of the Info-communications Media Development Authority.

“It will be more meaningful if we could analyse data holistically. For example, a combined data set that contained mobility information, finance records and medical records could potentially help us to understand how people live, work and eat can affect their health. Such a data set may comprise components owned by different organisations. Therefore, we need to ensure that the sharing and pooling of data does not compromise the privacy of individuals’ personal data and the obligation of the organisations to those individuals,” explained Prof Kankanhalli. “However, if raw data cannot be shared without privacy leakage, we should look into sharing machine learning models instead. Our focus will be on providing appropriate solutions which help organisations extract the maximum utility from the data.”

Clearly, the mission of N-CRiPT is paramount, but the tasks to achieve its goals are no doubt onerous. So why then, would Prof Kankanhalli set himself on such a path?

“I am driven by curiosity and intellectual challenges. I have always been fascinated by biological systems such as humans who effortlessly process multimodal data coming from our senses to go about purposefully in life. I want to harness the power of multimodal data to make sense of the environment, so that we can build artificial computing systems to perform useful functions that help individuals and our society.”

Getting a sense of what people want

Another project Prof Kankanhalli and his team are working on is the Risk Pulse Monitor, where open source data from social media is mined to get a sense of society’s prevailing concerns. This work is being done under the aegis of the Lloyd's Register Foundation Institute for the Public Understanding of Risk at NUS.

“Public sentiment and perception can be key factors when it comes to policy implementation or technology adoption. As Singapore embarks on its Smart Nation journey, it is imperative to establish trust and for the public to be engaged continuously. To begin this dialogue, it is important to be aware of people’s worries, and also to assure people that their personal data is safe.”

At this point, the Risk Pulse Monitor provides a dashboard visualising, among other figures, the number of times that local news articles on topics that fall within broad risk categories defined by the World Economic Forum, are shared on social media. This dashboard is updated daily and will provide policymakers with a tool to get a “real time” sense of the prevailing concerns of the public. It will also provide researchers with the basis to understand public concerns, including the processes underlying attitude formation and change.

I want to harness the power of multimodal data to make sense of the environment, so that we can build artificial computing systems to perform useful functions that help individuals and our society.

A holistic approach is key

Originally from Bangalore, India, Prof Kankanhalli has been in Singapore for the past two decades. His expertise is in multimedia content analysis, particularly image and video processing, as well as social media analysis. He has also worked on privacy of surveillance video data. It is apt to say he has not only witnessed, but also serves as an important part of, the nation’s digital transformation journey. Evidently, he knows what is important as Singapore goes full speed ahead with this ambition.

“To truly improve the overall wellbeing of people going into the future, we need concerted and synergistic efforts to create solutions, processes and products that align with people’s needs and concerns — and that is where N-CRiPT and the Risk Pulse Project can contribute to this goal,” said Prof Kankanhalli.

Ever the visionary, Prof Kankanhalli is already asking bigger questions, for example, those pertaining to privacy risk management.

“Eventually, we want to determine the value of data from the perspective of privacy compromise, because there can never be any system that can guarantee perfect privacy. The valuation of data will reveal societal perception of privacy and risk, as well as help develop novel risk mitigation strategies. This interdisciplinary research will also be an opportunity for both the computer scientists and the social scientists to come together to solve big problems.”