A Center for Sustainable Cloud Computing

In this age of online marketing, e-commerce companies have turned into mega advertisers on the Internet. They use web browsers and mobile apps as their hidden eye to target personalized offers based on browsing and buying habits of the user.

However, by yielding to an urge to click on a product advertisement, you could be giving away a lot about yourself. It is veritably a trade-off between utility and privacy, where utility wins more often than not, with privacy being the proverbial sacrificial goat.

But is that trade-off really inevitable? Must we always sacrifice privacy to take advantage of an online product recommendation? The answer to both questions is a firm ‘No,’ as shown in a recent study by EPFL researcher Mahsa Taziki. By means of a meticulously formulated algorithm, Taziki and her co-researchers Rachid Guerraoui and Anne-Marie Kermarrec have found an optimum method to surf the Internet and click on product recommendations without surrendering private information.

After feeding their algorithm to Movielens’ 100K dataset, the researchers concluded that most advertisements (78.40% of clicks) provoke a trade-off between utility and privacy. Conversely, and happily, there are a sizeable number of clicks (5.12%) that promote utility without compromising privacy. The remainder of clicks (16.48%) do not play a role in either enhancing your utility or shielding your privacy. In short, the “click advisor diagram” designed by Mahsa Taziki and team tells you the amount of information you reveal by clicking on a specific link. Armed with that knowledge, you can decide your clicking strategy. The algorithm enables you, in real time, to weigh the advantages gained from a click against the information you let out, and then make an informed choice. In contrast to an ad blocker, the algorithm doesn’t hide information from you; it only helps you choose the appropriate ones.

The robust algorithm categorizes each potential click into one of four zones: Safe, Trade-off, Dangerous, and Deleterious. The user is then presented with the option to choose a clicking strategy. If you are a risk-taker, you could decide to confirm all the pre-clicks; if you are more careful, you could confirm only those clicks that are in the Safe and Trade-off zones.

The researchers are working toward developing a browser extension with the built-in algorithm to warn the user about the quantum of personal data likely to be compromised with a click on a particular product recommendation. That could be a major asset for discerning users because they could temper their clicking decisions based on the “click advisor.”

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