Videoconferencing leaks get plugged

Huge amounts of video imagery being captured increases the likelihood of sensitive data being inadvertently distributed. Computer scientists say they have a solution.

Videoconferencing leaks get plugged
Credit: Duke University

Trade secret leaks through videoconference camera angles are about to become a thing of the past, according to scientists at Duke University.

The researchers there say they’ve developed a system that will block camera shots that include confidential information, such as whiteboard presentations. The blocking advantage being that one will no longer have to carefully sweep an office backdrop for secrets, or disable the camera even, before placing or receiving videoconference calls—the call can simply be placed.

Duke’s under-development system also works for smartphone camera shots of receipts, say, for expense accounting.

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The computer scientists’ system functions through human intervention: Users choose the part of a scene that can be shared by creating a border through a finger-swipe.

“Once it knows what it’s looking for, the software intercepts all incoming frames from the video stream and rapidly scans frame by frame for a match using computer vision technology,” Duke’s press release says. Everything else is blocked.

Unfortunately, the team couldn’t get the system to work properly through blacklisting. That would be when the developer defines the kinds of things that shouldn’t be shown by the camera, such as printed spreadsheets laying on a desk.

“Things that some people consider sensitive might not be sensitive to you,” says Ashwin Machanavajjhala, an assistant professor of computer science and co-author of the research. “It’s hard to build something that covers all possible scenarios.”

Another problem encountered was that the software processing a list of items became confused under different lighting conditions.

“Even if it fails just one or two percent of the time, it’s not secure,” said co-author Animesh Srivastava, a student at Duke. Hence the manual intervention.

Digitization becomes a problem

Digitizing our lives is a problem, the academics point out. As camera resolution becomes more refined and the sheer quantity of data captured becomes ever bigger, there’s a lot of room for information to spill out that may be better left concealed.

Some scientists say that as artificial intelligence becomes more prominent in our lives, cameras will be on 24 hours a day in order to capture images as automated aide memoires.

I’ve written about how phones may do all our organizing one day through ambient video capture.

“There are more and more cameras every year. They’re incredibly useful,” says another Duke member, Landon Cox. “But the downside is we’re now converting large swaths of our surroundings to a digital format that’s easy to access and share, including things we might not want to be digitizing.”

I remember, some years ago, seeing a magnificent, war-room-like whiteboard in an office I visited.

I much admired it—until I studied it carefully. All it really showed was sanitized data, like positive sales figures. There wasn’t any juicy material, such as market projections, for example. All of the good stuff was omitted in case inquisitive folk dropped by.

One might wonder as to what extent the videoconference tool has further limited the use of whiteboards in office communications and whether Duke’s invention may proffer it a new life.

Next up the researchers plan to add privacy controls to audio. That will work by “allowing third parties to hear only certain voices, words or noises in an audio stream, for example,” they say.

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