15-508 / 17-801 / 19-608 / 95-818: Privacy Policy, Law, and Technology

Semester Project

All students in this course will be required to complete a project that they work on throughout the semester. Students may work on a project individually or in small groups of up to five students.


August 31 - Project assignment discussed in class
September 19 - Project brainstorming due (2 points)
October 3 - One-paragraph project description due (3 points)
October 17 - Project proposal due (15 points)
November 14 - Draft paper due (5 points)
December 9, 3pm - Final paper due (60 points)
December 5, 7, 14 - Project presentations in class (10 points) and at poster session (5 points)

The various project assignments due before the final paper are designed to make sure you are making progress on your project throughout the semester and to give you opportunities to get feedback on your work along the way. Only the project proposal, final paper, and presentation will be graded for content. The other project assignments will be graded for completeness. For example, you will receive full credit for your draft paper if it has all the expected components and it appears that you put some effort into your draft, even if the content is poor. However, if your draft is missing an essential component (for example, a bibliography), you will not receive full credit. You will also lose points for submitting project components late. All project-related assignments will be graded within one week if they are submitted on time. You will receive feedback on the quality of the content even when you are not graded on quality. Feel free to submit these assignments early.


Project Brainstorming

You should brainstorm about possible topics for your project. This may include completely original ideas as well as variations on the suggested topics that have been provided. Turn in at least two possible topics that you are considering. Especially if you are considering an idea that is not on the suggested topics list, this is a good way to get early feedback on whether you are on the right track. Please email your project brainstorming as plain text (cut and paste into the body of your email) to privacy-homework AT cups DOT cs DOT cmu DOT edu and put "project brainstorming" in the subject line.

One-paragraph Project Description

Turn in a one-paragraph description of the project you intend to complete. If this is a team project, make sure you list all the team members. Please email your one-paragraph description as plain text (cut and paste into the body of your email) to privacy-homework AT cups DOT cs DOT cmu DOT edu and put "project description" in the subject line.

Project Proposal

The project proposal should include:

You might think of the project proposal as being similar to a grant proposal (without the need to fill out government forms or prepare a budget request). In the process of preparing this proposal you should conduct a literature review so that you can cite the relevant related work in your proposal.

Most of your grade will be based on your literature review, background, and motivation. Writing quality (grammar, spelling, clarity, etc.) will be taken into account in your grade as well. Besides being a graded assignment, the project proposal serves as a way for you to organize your thoughts about how to proceed with your semester project and to communicate them to your instructor. You will receive feedback on your proposal that may result in some changes to your project plans.

Please email your project proposal as a Microsoft Word document or PDF file to privacy-homework AT cups DOT cs DOT cmu DOT edu and put "project proposal" in the subject line.

Draft Paper

Your draft paper should be a complete or nearly complete version of your final project report. Please submit your draft paper BOTH via email and hard copy. Please submit your draft double-spaced or with wide margins so that there is plenty of room for writing comments. Please staple your draft in the top left corner. Do not submit it in a binder or report cover. Your electronic submission should have "draft paper" in the subject line.

Final Paper

Your project report should document the work you have done on your project. It should include an updated version of the literature review, background, and motivation from your project proposal. If your project primarily involved writing a paper, then your project report may be the only artifact you submit. On the other hand, if you developed software or created something as part of this project, you should submit whatever you created in addition to the report. In the latter case, the report should document what you did and may include information about obstacles you encountered, testing and evaluation, design rationale, etc., as appropriate. Please consult with the instructor about what should be included in your report if you have any doubts. You will be graded both on your results as well as the accompanying explanation in your report.

Graduate students are expected to write up their report in a format suitable as a conference paper submission.

Because of all the opportunities you have to get feedback on your project during the semester, the final paper and presentation will be graded with fairly high standards. What I will be looking for depends a lot on the particular project you choose. Here are some things I will be looking for in most papers.

Please submit your final paper BOTH via email and hard copy. Your electronic submission should have "final paper" in the subject line.

Project Presentation

You should prepare an 8-10 minute presentation that provides an overview of your project report. Presentations will be scheduled during the last week of class and during the final exam week. Following your class presentation your instructor and classmates will have an opportunity to ask you questions about your project. You will be graded on the organization and clarity of your presentation, your effective use of visual aids, your oral presentation skills, and your responses to questions. It is recommended that you do a practice run of your presentation for your friends. Make sure you can stay within the 10-minute time limit!


A poster session (open to the public) will be scheduled during the last week of classes (December 14, 3:00-5:00 pm). You should prepare a poster that provides an overview of your project. A 30x40 inch foam core board and easel will be provided to each student. I will also provide thumb tacks, construction paper, glue sticks and other supplies. You may prepare your poster as a set of up to 9 8.5x11 sheets of paper or print it as a single sheet. SCS provides a large format poster printer by the Wean 3rd floor help desk. More details about the poster session will be provided in class.

Project ideas

The following are a list of suggested projects. Students may select one of these projects or develop their own project idea in consultation with the instructor. You may also find inspiration in the projects completed by students in this course last year.

Consumer web site consulting project

A Pittsburgh company is looking for a team of students to investigate a set of known privacy concerns for a new consumer website as well as to bring to their attention additional privacy concerns that they may not yet be aware of. [more details]

Short privacy notices

Research the efforts underway to develop standard format, short privacy notices as well as the processes that lead to the development of other types of consumer notices such as nutrition labels and various safety warnings. Critique the designs for a short privacy notice that have been proposed and offer your own proposal for a notice design. Identify specific areas where further research or consumer testing is needed to further refine the design and carry out a small consumer test to gain additional insights into at least one of these areas. Relevant URLs to get you started: http://www.privacyconference2003.org/resolution.asp, http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2003/12/privnoticesjoint.htm, http://www.privacyrights.org/ar/ftc-noticeANPR.htm, http://www.hunton.com/info_policy/short-notices.htm, http://cups.cs.cmu.edu/soups/2005/2005proceedings/p43-good.pdf

Privacy software development

Design and implement a privacy-related software tool that offers functionality or features that are different from the other tools currently available. You might develop a stand-alone tool or develop a module for another piece of software, for example Mozilla. You might also add new features or functionality to Privacy Bird or Privacy Finder. Depending on the scope of what you have in mind, it may not be feasible to implement your entire design during this semester, in which case you should implement one component of the design and document the rest of the design, perhaps also implementing a mocked up user interface. Your report should explain the rationale behind your design, the types of privacy protections this software offers, who would be interested in using it, and how it differs from other software currently available.

Privacy software user interface design

Perform user studies and propose new user interface designs for Privacy Bird, Privacy Finder, or other privacy software. You might study the entire user interface or focus on one particular aspect, for example the icons used for presenting information to users. Your report should discuss your findings and your proposed design changes, as well as the broader implications for the design of privacy software or our understanding about the ways people conceptualize privacy. This is best done as a team project with at least one team member who is familiar with human-computer interaction methods. This project will require IRB approval.

Privacy software review

Conduct a "Consumer Reports" style review of consumer privacy software products and services. You should identify a type of product or service to investigate and develop a set of criteria for evaluating and comparing these products. Then you should carry out tests on a set of these products. Your review should include background information on these products and advice for consumers as well as the results of your evaluations. Unlike the real "Consumer Reports" your report is not limited to a few magazine pages, so you can (and should) go into a bit more detail than you will usually find in a magazine review.

Detecting information leaks

A student who took this class last year developed a system for detecting information leaks on a wireless network and notifying users via a peripheral display. He conducted a small user study to see whether the system raised awareness of information leaks among users. The study results indicated some increased awareness, but also some confusion among users. This project involves extending this work to find better ways of making privacy visible and conducting a new user study. See the papers on the original study.

Survey design

In order to develop privacy user agents that are going to be most useful to people, it is helpful to understand potential users' perceptions of privacy risks in an ecommerce environment. This project involves designing a survey, pre-testing it, refining it, and using it to conduct a pilot study. The survey should include questions that will assess both which possible privacy risks would most concern users, as well as which risks they believe are most likely to occur. It should also assess the relative usefulness of potential privacy notifications (for example, derived from information in a P3P policy). Students should review other privacy surveys and discuss them in the final paper as well. An IRB review will be required, but hopefully IRB will grant an exemption because this is survey research.

Online public records

What personal information contained in public records is made available online in Allegheny County? What are the benefits of making this information available online? What are the potential privacy risks associated with making this information available online? Does Pennsylvania have any laws that restrict what public records may be made available online? Do any other states have such restrictions? What are some ways that we can achieve most or all of the intended benefits of posting this information while reducing the privacy risks? This might be expanded into a group project by developing a system to demonstrate potential privacy risks, and/or by developing a system to demonstrate ways of mitigating these risks (please discuss with me how you will take care not to put anybody's privacy at greater risk through your demonstration system). See http://prothonotary.county.allegheny.pa.us/ and http://www2.county.allegheny.pa.us/RealEstate/, and http://www.saltsburg.org/Misc/right_to_know_law.htm. Also look for information on the 2005 Indiana law that requires Social Security numbers to be redacted from documents before they are released for public inspection.

Vehicle tracking for road usage taxes

Several cities and states around the world are considering plans to impose a tax based on the number of miles people drive. In order to do this, they propose adding monitoring devices to vehicles that would monitor the number of miles driven and report it automatically to the government. Such systems might also keep track of where a vehicle has been driven and at what time of day and adjust the tax accordingly so as to encourage travel on less congested roads or during off-peak travel times. Such proposals are aimed at raising tax revenue, reducing vehicle emissions, and easing road congestion. However, they also raise privacy concerns. Explore the privacy concerns raised by these systems and approaches to reducing privacy risks while achieving these goals. See DMV Chief Backs Tax by Mile, UK plans to track all drivers, and Oregon Road User Fee Task Force.

Upgrade Privacy Bird to P3P1.1

Privacy Bird is open source P3P software originally developed by AT&T but now maintained by the CMU Usable Privacy and Security Laboratory. Privacy Bird was designed to be compliant with the P3P 1.0 specification. It is implemented as a browser helper object for Internet Explorer. It is also now integrated into a search engine. A working draft for P3P 1.1 is now available. This project involves upgrading Privacy Bird to comply with P3P 1.1. Students who work on this project may work on the Windows-based BHO code or the Unix-based search engine code (or both).

Computer professionals and privacy

Research the history of computer professionals' involvement in privacy issues. As new computing technologies have raised new privacy concerns, what role have computer scientists played in bringing these concerns to light, developing designs that minimize privacy risks, and advocating public policies that help mitigate privacy concerns?

Privacy risks from wireless technologies

Wireless devices that use RFID, Bluetooth, 802.11, GPS, etc. are becoming increasingly prevalent and raising privacy concerns. However, there is a lot of misinformation and confusion about the privacy issues associated with these devices. The goal of this project is to sort out the fact from the fiction and provide a balanced assessment of the risks and benefits of these technologies. What uses of these technologies pose few if any privacy risks? What are the biggest privacy risks associated with these technologies? What should consumers be most concerned about? What steps can consumers take to protect themselves? Are any new regulations needed to address privacy issues associated with these technologies? What guidelines should technology designers and service providers follow to mitigate privacy risks?

Cost of privacy

Some companies are investing a lot of money in proactive privacy-related efforts, while others are addressing privacy issues only when a problem occurs. Industry analysts and consumer activists tend to differ in their assessments of the cost of privacy. How much do corporate privacy programs cost? What sort of payoffs can companies expect from them? What kinds of industries are developing around corporate privacy-related services? What kinds of companies seem to benefit most from proactive privacy efforts? Resources to get you started: The cost of privacy safeguards, Privacy, Consumers, and Costs, The Economics of Privacy, The Privacy Payoff.

Technology assessment of anonymous payment systems

Survey the various proposals for anonymous payment systems in the literature, as well as actual anonymous payment systems that have been deployed (e-cash systems, anonymous credit cards, stored value cards, etc.). To what extent are anonymous payment systems readily available for people to use today? What kind of anonymity do they provide and what are their capabilities and limitations? What factors have prevented them from becoming more widely deployed? What issues would need to be overcome before they would be likely to become more widely deployed. Develop a number of possible scenarios that lead to differing levels of adoption in the future.