Automated Analysis of General Data Protection Regulation Violations in WordPress Plugins ; Preserving Digital Privacy in the Light of Big Data

Author: ORCID icon
Thomas, Patrick, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Tian, Yuan, EN-Comp Science Dept, University of Virginia
Ferguson, Sean, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

Over the past several decades, Internet usage has greatly grown and now allows for people to access a myriad of online services, such as banking, shopping, and social media. Much of the Internet nowadays is fueled by online advertising and marketing, which in turn relies on the bulk collection and analysis of personal information. This runs against digital privacy or the idea that users should have the choice to maintain control of who accesses and collects their data.
One way to further digital privacy is to support initiatives like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). In some situations where a web application's source code is publicly available, that code can be analyzed for a subset of GDPR violations. One such situation is WordPress plugins, which extend the functionality of WordPress beyond blogging. The technical project aims to build an analysis tool capable of evaluating WordPress plugins for GDPR violations. This is challenging in that violations can take on many different forms, and that analyzing source code that contains multiple languages is hard to model. These violations can range from unwarranted personal data collection to unauthorized personal data transmission to third parties.
As opposed to simply identifying digital privacy violations in a specific set of web application plugins according to GDPR, the STS research aims to answer what we as a society should do towards stopping datafication and preserving digital privacy. First, some ways that personal data is collected are explored, as it gives useful context to the solutions. Then, the importance of digital privacy is explained as well as challenges in users' understanding of privacy. Several existing, known methods are considered and evaluated as to how they support digital privacy and fundamental ideas behind digital privacy, like autonomy and self-ownership. These methods include ad blockers, DNS privacy, government regulation, advocacy, and education. Ad blockers and DNS-over-HTTPS, while realizing some benefits for the user, only tangentially support digital privacy but still help to achieve it. On the other hand, a combination of regulation, advocacy, and earlier privacy education in undergraduate curricula more directly support the ideals of digital privacy. Those three combined help change the course of datafication rather than help fix the resulting problems, helping us reach a more private future.
Overall, the work on the aforementioned projects was somewhat successful. Through the STS research, I learned a great deal about digital privacy and its values as well as what exists beyond ad blocking to remedy datafication. In retrospect, I would have chosen a more narrow topic though, as the scope of the project was very hard to contain and work with. The technical project similarly taught me a great deal about new technologies to me, like graph databases. Stronger project management would have served us well, and better use of GitHub, including features like GitHub issues, would have made the project a lot more organized.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
big data, static analysis, GDPR, datafication
Issued Date: