A Center for Sustainable Cloud Computing

Browsing websites is not without perils. With each visit, you leave some personal data that might be stored and even used by the website to their advantage. Data protection policies posted on websites are meant to make visitors wary of the danger, but the policies are either wrapped in incomprehensible legalese or clothed with seemingly innocuous generic terms that increase ambiguity about what a website does with your personal data. In February this year, researchers at EPFL launched an AI-backed program called Polisis to make life simpler by automatically scanning thousands of websites and generating an accurate and intelligible summary of the data protection policies in a matter of seconds. Few months down the line, the unique program has attracted more than a score of licensing requests from all over the world.

The spurt of requests might have been partially triggered by the new EU regulation implemented in May. The new stipulation has made customers wary about sharing personal data on websites. Speaking on the success of Polisis, Hamza Harkous confirmed that EPFL’s Technology Transfer Office (TTO) has received more than twenty license requests from companies offering data protection and data monetization services, lawyers in the process of drafting data protection policies, and advertisers keen to comply with  the new regulatory requirements enforced by the EU. So far, Polisis has avoided entering into exclusivity agreements. However, it has made an exception in the case of U.S. search engine  DuckDuckGo because the search engine has a proven track record of protecting personal data and not storing any personal information about users. Hitherto, DuckDuckGo relied on its Privacy Essentials extension, which generated a summary of key data protection information based on the policies of just a limited number of websites. Going forward, Polisis’ algorithms would enable the search engine to generate summaries based on thousands of websites.

Polisis is not, however, an overnight success story. Hamza Harkous and his team spent many painstaking hours over a period of 18 months to finally have the end product. Since then, it has been tested by more than 30,000 enthusiasts.

Its popularity has been driven in great measure by the fact that it is immensely user-friendly. It has left all its competitors far behind because it is the only program that offers automatically generated summaries of how websites handle personal data. Today, it is helping users make data protection policies lucid and transparent, and thereby take necessary precautions while visiting websites. That is surely a major contribution in today’s world of data thefts and privacy concerns.