Research aims to help social media users secure their information

When a new concern about privacy and security for social media users occurs every week, it is hard to know how to protect personal information.

With that in mind, researchers at UNG are on a quest to give users of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram better tools to guard their sensitive data. Thanks to a Presidential Semester Incentive Award, Dr. Ahmad Ghafarian and three students are conducting controlled experiments during the 2019-20 school year to see how much data is stored on computers and web browsers used by social media account holders.

Ghafarian, professor of computer science at UNG, received one of 38 grants totaling more than $360,000 awarded by UNG President Bonita Jacobs in January 2019 to faculty and staff members in support of academic excellence, scholarly activity and innovation.

Their research uses several open source computer forensics tools including Redline, Sleuth Kit and Bulk Extractor, which law enforcement agencies use to look for suspicious activity through memory and file analysis that help gauge threats. Ghafarian has instructed each student to open several social media profiles on each social network and interact with each other to provide controls as the group looks for malicious activity.

“We observed that even with the privacy settings applied, we are still able to retrieve personal data from main memory,” Ghafarian said.

Justin Frady, a senior from Buford, Georgia, pursuing a degree in computer science, said it’s easy for people to forget about privacy concerns while on social media. He hopes the group’s research can help change that.

“This research has helped bring my courses to life in a variety of ways. For example, in nearly every computer security/forensic-related course, we learn that the integrity of the data is a very important concept,” Frady said. “In the end, if you cannot trust the data, then you cannot trust the results you’re trying to prove. Dr. Ghafarian makes sure that all three of us follow the exact procedure, using the same methods and equipment, so that we can protect the integrity of this research.”

Darius Fiallo, a senior from Miami, Florida, pursuing a degree in computer science, said the research can be nerve-wracking, but he appreciates the high stakes.

“This research looks for any security flaws in the major social media platforms people use and finds a way to help people keep their accounts and information secure,” Fiallo said.

Deniz Keskin, a senior from Istanbul, Turkey, pursuing a degree in cybersecurity, said the information he and his fellow researchers have found about social media raises major concerns.

“The more we know, the more scary it is,” Keskin said.

Ghafarian and his student researchers plan to examine content of main memory, registry, file system, and “private” internet browsers that delete temporary internet files known as “cookies” for evidence of social media usage that could assist in information security and privacy.

Frady knows the problems addressed by this research will always be present in some form.

“I feel this research is important because social media is here to stay. Some social media applications may die out, but there are always new ones to take their place,” Frady said. “Therefore, a lot of people will always trust their private information to these sorts of applications, without knowing if their data is truly secure or not.”

Once this work is complete, Ghafarian plans to present the research results at one or more of the following: the international Computing Conference; international Future Technology Conference; International Conference on Cyber Warfare and Security; the ADFSL Conference on Digital Forensics, Security and Law; and the International Multi-conference on Complexity, Informatics and Cybernetics.