KU research into online security for public internet users expands to examine effects of COVID-19

LAWRENCE — University of Kansas researchers studying what they call “digital homelessness” have received an additional grant to examine how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting Americans who don’t have easy access to the internet.

Before the pandemic, people without their own devices or internet access often used local libraries to obtain those services, but many of those locations have been closed or greatly reduced their access during quarantine lockdowns.

“The folks we’re focused on don’t have a ‘digital home,’” said Bill Staples, principal investigator on the project, professor emeritus of sociology and director of the Surveillance Studies Research Center. “That is, their computing lives are resource-limited, transient, less private and more vulnerable to digital threats than those who own computers and access the web through broadband at their residences. When libraries closed, they were locked out of a digital life most of us take for granted.”

Staples and his colleagues want to find out how — and if — people experiencing digital homelessness are coping.

“There’s anecdotal information about libraries pumping Wi-Fi out into the parking lots,” he said. “Some libraries are helping, but we need to take a systematic look at what is going on.”

The research team is led by Staples; Perry Alexander, AT&T Foundation Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science and director of the Information and Telecommunication Technology Center; and Drew Davidson, assistant professor of electrical engineering & computer science.

These KU scholars had already been awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation titled “Safeguarding and Enhancing the Experience of Public Internet Users,” funded through NSF’s Secure and Trustworthy Cyberspace program. The two-year, $516,000 grant will support research about how people who use public internet resources — like libraries — navigate the internet and what security threats they face.

NSF has now awarded the team an additional Rapid Response Research grant of $200,000 to look at how the pandemic has affected such users.

“We’re trying to get a before, during and after snapshot” of how the issue has evolved with the onset of the pandemic, Staples said.

As much as 30% of the American population lacks adequate broadband access at home. Researchers say this digital divide results from — and contributes to — widening economic inequality. 

“I think this is an understudied population, and as such is a population that hasn’t been fully considered in the computing landscape,” Davidson said. “There’s an assumption as our lives move online that everybody can keep up, and that’s not the case. It’s important because the need is so great.”

“These people are digitally marginalized, socially and economically disadvantaged in a society in which internet has become a needed utility,” Staples said. “They cannot simply ‘work from home’ or e-learn new skills, nor can their children shift to ‘distance learning’ as millions have been asked to do. It’s like trying to get by without electricity in your house. It makes their lives that much more difficult and challenging.”

The new study will have three points of data collection. Users at the Lawrence Public Library, which has restored limited access to its computer lab, will be surveyed and some interviewed about their experiences. The researchers will also send an online survey to a representative sample of library directors across the United States to collect information on library policies and practices during the pandemic. Finally, team members will compile related stories from news sources around the country to capture what journalists have found out about was has been happening in their communities. 

The team’s ultimate goal is to offer new tools to public internet users when they access the internet, including development of a device the team calls PUPS — public user privacy and security. The device is an isolated, portable, virtual computing environment on a USB stick, designed to provide a “digital home” to users, giving them a functional, seamless computing experience from one session and device to the next. There may be nontechnical solutions available as well, as researchers examine the contours of the issue more closely from both an engineering and a sociological perspective.

“I’m really happy we have this multidisciplinary team,” Davidson said. “I think there’s a lot of good that can be done.”

The Institute for Policy & Social Research’s staff assisted with development of this proposal and will manage this grant.

More information and results can be found at the project's website

Thu, 07/30/2020


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