Professor Abby Marsh

Abby Marsh
Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science

My area of research is called user privacy and security. Within the field of computer science, it’s the union of two different disciplines. One being human computer interaction, which is the study of how people use computer systems, and the other being privacy and security, which studies how computer systems use, store, and protect data. 

This summer I’ve been working on a research project with Professor Lauren Milne with help from student Beatrice Chihak ’20. We’re looking at the privacy and security implications of assistive technology, which is anything that helps somebody use a digital device to access software or the web.

When you use assistive technology, you are potentially exposing something about yourself, especially the fact that you have a disability.

For example, if you use a screen reader, which will narrate out loud the contents of whatever you’re looking at on your phone or on your laptop, that might reveal your disability status in two ways. 

There’s the ‘over-the-shoulder’ risk of someone being physically around you and hearing the contents of your website being read out into a public space. But there’s also the risk that whatever website you’re visiting can detect that you’re running the screen-  reading software at the time that you’re using it, and, therefore, know, “Oh, this user is somebody who needs a screen reader in order to access our content.” 

That risks exposing somebody who might have a disability to these web companies. We want to know what types of information a platform learns about somebody who uses assistive technology. And, who are the different parties that might get that information? 

For example, if your instructor asks you to use a platform for class that gathers information about the assistive tech that you’re using, does the platform know that information about you as a user? Does your instructor know? Do peers in your class know? And would it matter to you, the individual student with a disability? 

We started by talking with professionals who work in the field of assistive technology or disability accommodations to get a lay of the land and to figure out what types of assistive tech they’re recommending. 

Now, we’re about to begin interviewing people with disabilities. We’re targeting the student age group that has a lot of experience using assistive technology in a structured environment. 

We’d like to be able to come out of this research saying, ”These are the sets of privacy concerns that the users we interviewed raised, and this is how they are or are not being met by the assistive tech that’s already in use. This is what assistive tech developers should be considering.”

October 16 2020

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