Nina Taft

Nina Taft

Nina Taft is a Senior Staff Research Scientist at Google where she leads the Applied Privacy Research group. Prior to joining Google, Nina worked at Technicolor Research, Intel Labs Berkeley, Sprint Labs and SRI. She received her PhD from UC Berkeley. Over the years, she has worked in the fields of networking protocols, network traffic matrix estimation, Internet traffic modeling and prediction, intrusion detection, recommendation systems and privacy. Her current interests like in applications of machine learning for privacy, private data analytics, and user experience. She has been the chair or co-chair of the SIGCOMM, IMC and PAM conferences. (While some papers are listed here, see Google Scholar for a complete listing.)
Authored Publications
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    Preview abstract In this paper we study users' opinions about the privacy of their mobile health apps. We look at what they write in app reviews in the 'Health & Fitness' category on the Google Play store. We identified 2832 apps in this category (based on 1K minimum installs). Using NLP/LLM analyses, we find that 76% of these apps have at least some privacy reviews. In total this yields over 164,000 reviews about privacy, from over 150 countries and in 25 languages. Our analyses identifies top themes and offers an approximation of how widespread these issues are around the world. We show that the top 4 themes - Data Sharing and Exposure, Permission Requests, Location Tracking and Data Collection - are issues of concern in over 70 countries. Our automatically generated thematic summaries reveal interesting aspects that deserve further research around user suspicions (unneeded data collection), user requests (more fine-grained control over data collection and data access), as well as user behavior (uninstalling apps). View details
    Preview abstract We present an analysis of 12 million instances of privacy-relevant reviews publicly visible on the Google Play Store that span a 10 year period. By leveraging state of the art NLP techniques, we examine what users have been writing about privacy along multiple dimensions: time, countries, app types, diverse privacy topics, and even across a spectrum of emotions. We find consistent growth of privacy-relevant reviews, and explore topics that are trending (such as Data Deletion and Data Theft), as well as those on the decline (such as privacy-relevant reviews on sensitive permissions). We find that although privacy reviews come from more than 200 countries, 33 countries provide 90% of privacy reviews. We conduct a comparison across countries by examining the distribution of privacy topics a country’s users write about, and find that geographic proximity is not a reliable indicator that nearby countries have similar privacy perspectives. We uncover some countries with unique patterns and explore those herein. Surprisingly, we uncover that it is not uncommon for reviews that discuss privacy to be positive (32%); many users express pleasure about privacy features within apps or privacy-focused apps. We also uncover some unexpected behaviors, such as the use of reviews to deliver privacy disclaimers to developers. Finally, we demonstrate the value of analyzing app reviews with our approach as a complement to existing methods for understanding users' perspectives about privacy. View details
    Preview abstract In this paper we study users' opinions about the privacy of their mobile health apps. We look at what they write in app reviews in the 'Health & Fitness' category on the Google Play store. We identified 2832 apps in this category (based on 1K minimum installs). Using NLP/LLM analyses, we find that 76% of these apps have at least some privacy reviews. In total this yields over 164,000 reviews about privacy, from over 150 countries and in 25 languages. Our analyses identifies top themes and offers an approximation of how widespread these issues are around the world. We show that the top 4 themes - Data Sharing and Exposure, Permission Requests, Location Tracking and Data Collection - are issues of concern in over 70 countries. Our automatically generated thematic summaries reveal interesting aspects that deserve further research around user suspicions (unneeded data collection), user requests (more fine-grained control over data collection and data access), as well as user behavior (uninstalling apps). View details
    Preview abstract In this paper we study users' opinions about the privacy of their mobile health apps. We look at what they write in app reviews in the 'Health & Fitness' category on the Google Play store. We identified 2832 apps in this category (based on 1K minimum installs). Using NLP/LLM analyses, we find that 76% of these apps have at least some privacy reviews. In total this yields over 164,000 reviews about privacy, from over 150 countries and in 25 languages. Our analyses identifies top themes and offers an approximation of how widespread these issues are around the world. We show that the top 4 themes - Data Sharing and Exposure, Permission Requests, Location Tracking and Data Collection - are issues of concern in over 70 countries. Our automatically generated thematic summaries reveal interesting aspects that deserve further research around user suspicions (unneeded data collection), user requests (more fine-grained control over data collection and data access), as well as user behavior (uninstalling apps). View details
    Preview abstract Integrating user feedback is one of the pillars for building successful products. However, this feedback is generally collected in an unstructured free-text form, which is challenging to understand at scale. This is particularly demanding in the privacy domain due to the nuances associated with the concept and the limited existing solutions. In this work, we present Hark, a system for discovering and summarizing privacy-related feedback at scale. Hark automates the entire process of summarizing privacy feedback, starting from unstructured text and resulting in a hierarchy of high-level privacy themes and fine-grained issues within each theme, along with representative reviews for each issue. At the core of Hark is a set of new deep learning models trained on different tasks, such as privacy feedback classification, privacy issues generation, and high-level theme creation. We illustrate Hark’s efficacy on a corpus of 626M Google Play reviews. Out of this corpus, our privacy feedback classifier extracts 6M privacy-related reviews (with an AUC-ROC of 0.92). With three annotation studies, we show that Hark’s generated issues are of high accuracy and coverage and that the theme titles are of high quality. We illustrate Hark’s capabilities by presenting high-level insights from 1.3M Android apps. View details
    Balancing Privacy and Serendipity in CyberSpace
    M. Satyanarayanan
    Nigel Davies
    International Workshop on Mobile Computing Systems and Applications (ACM HotMobile), http://www.hotmobile.org/2022/(2022)
    Preview abstract Unplanned encounters or casual collisions between colleagues have long been recognized as catalysts for creativity and innovation. The absence of such encounters has been a negative side effect of COVID-enforced remote work. However, there have also been positive side effects such as less time lost to commutes, lower carbon footprints, and improved work-life balance. This vision paper explores how serendipity for remote workers can be created by leveraging IoT technologies, edge computing, high-resolution video, network protocols for live interaction, and video/audio denaturing. We reflect on the privacy issues that technology-mediated serendipity raises and sketch a path towards honoring diverse privacy preferences. View details
    Preview abstract In this paper we present a methodology to analyze users’ concerns and perspectives about privacy at scale. We leverage NLP techniques to process millions of mobile app reviews and extract privacy concerns. Our methodology is composed of a binary classifier that distinguishes between privacy and non-privacy related reviews. We use clustering to gather reviews that discuss similar privacy concerns, and employ summarization metrics to extract representative reviews to summarize each cluster. We apply our methods on 287M reviews for about 2M apps across the 29 categories in Google Play to identify top privacy pain points in mobile apps. We identified approximately 440K privacy related reviews. We find that privacy related reviews occur in all 29 categories, with some issues arising across numerous app categories and other issues only surfacing in a small set of app categories. We show empirical evidence that confirms dominant privacy themes – concerns about apps requesting unnecessary permissions, collection of personal information, frustration with privacy controls, tracking and the selling of personal data. As far as we know, this is the first large scale analysis to confirm these findings based on hundreds of thousands of user inputs. We also observe some unexpected findings such as users warning each other not to install an app due to privacy issues, users uninstalling apps due to privacy reasons, as well as positive reviews that reward developers for privacy friendly apps. Finally we discuss the implications of our method and findings for developers and app stores. View details
    A Large Scale Study of Users Behaviors, Expectations and Engagement with Android Permissions
    Weicheng Cao
    Chunqiu Xia
    David Lie
    Lisa Austin
    Usenix Security Symposium, Usenix, https://www.usenix.org/conference/usenixsecurity21(2021)
    Preview abstract We conduct a global study on the behaviors, expectations and engagement of 1,719 participants across 10 countries and regions towards Android application permissions. Participants were recruited using mobile advertising and used an application we designed for 30 days. Our app samples user behaviors (decisions made), rationales (via in-situ surveys), expectations, and attitudes, as well as some app provided explanations. We study the grant and deny decisions our users make, and build mixed effect logistic regression models to illustrate the many factors that influence this decision making. Among several interesting findings, we observed that users facing an unexpected permission request are more than twice as likely to deny it compared to a user who expects it, and that permission requests accompanied by an explanation have a deny rate that is roughly half the deny rate of app permission requests without explanations. These findings remain true even when controlling for other factors. To the best of our knowledge, this may be the first study of actual privacy behavior (not stated behavior) for Android apps, with users using their own devices, across multiple continents. View details
    "Shhh...be Quiet!" Reducing the Unwanted Interruptions of Notification Permission Prompts on Chrome
    Balazs Engedy
    Jud Porter
    Kamila Hasanbega
    Andrew Paseltiner
    Hwi Lee
    Edward Jung
    PJ McLachlan
    Jason James
    30th USENIX Security Symposium (USENIX Security 21), USENIX Association, Vancouver, B.C.(2021)
    Preview abstract Push notifications are an extremely useful feature. In web browsers, they allow users to receive timely updates even if the website is not currently open. On Chrome, the feature has become extremely popular since its inception in 2015, but it is also the least likely to be accepted by users. Our telemetry shows that, although 74% of all permission prompts are about notifications, they are also the least likely to be granted with only a 10% grant rate on desktop and 21% grant rate on Android. In order to preserve its utility for the websites and to reduce unwanted interruptions for the users, we designed and tested a new UI for notification permission prompt on Chrome. In this paper, we conduct two large-scale studies of Chrome users interactions with the notifications permission prompt in the wild, in order to understand how users interact with such prompts and to evaluate a novel design that we introduced in Chrome version 80 in February 2020. Our main goal for the redesigned UI is to reduce the unwanted interruptions due to notification permission prompts for Chrome users, the frequency at which users have to suppress them and the ease of changing a previously made choice. Our results, based on an A/B test using behavioral data from more than 40 million users who interacted with more than 100 million prompts on more than 70 thousand websites, show that the new UI is very effective at reducing the unwanted interruptions and their frequency (up to 30% fewer unnecessary actions on the prompts), with a minimal impact (less than 5%) on the grant rates, across all types of users and websites. We achieve these results thanks to a novel adaptive activation mechanism coupled with a block list of interrupting websites, which is derived from crowd-sourced telemetry from Chrome clients. View details
    Reducing Permission Requests in Mobile Apps
    Martin Pelikan
    Ulfar Erlingsson
    Giles Hogben
    Proceedings of ACM Internet Measurement Conference (IMC)(2019)
    Preview abstract Users of mobile apps sometimes express discomfort or concerns with what they see as unnecessary or intrusive permission requests by certain apps. However encouraging mobile app developers to request fewer permissions is challenging because there are many reasons why permissions are requested; furthermore, prior work has shown it is hard to disambiguate the purpose of a particular permission with high certainty. In this work we describe a novel, algorithmic mechanism intended to discourage mobile-app developers from asking for unnecessary permissions. Developers are incentivized by an automated alert, or "nudge", shown in the Google Play Console when their apps ask for permissions that are requested by very few functionally-similar apps---in other words, by their competition. Empirically, this incentive is effective, with significant developer response since its deployment. Permissions have been redacted by 59% of apps that were warned, and this attenuation has occurred broadly across both app categories and app popularity levels. Importantly, billions of users' app installs from the Google Play have benefited from these redactions View details