People share a lot of information about themselves from location data collected through smartphones and other mobile devices. Some of this data is stored on the device and can be shared with the user’s permission for legitimate business reasons. But many mobile users want greater protection for their privacy and security.

So a team of engineers at Oregon State University developed an algorithm for encrypting location data that hides the user’s location information. The technology is secure against malware and other threats. Electrical engineering and computer science faculty Bechir Hamdaoui and Attila Yavuz were the principal investigators of the new encryption method, assisted by graduate student Mohamed Grissa. 

Protecting data dynamically and seamlessly

The Oregon State innovation addresses a significant privacy issue for mobile devices: location information can be inferred over wireless networks without a user’s knowledge. This information can reveal private and sensitive information, such as users’ shopping patterns, health conditions or beliefs. Such potentially sensitive information is readily available through wireless networks known as cognitive radio.

Cognitive radio networks are seen as the future in wireless communications. These networks detect channels that are in use and can switch to the best wireless channel available to avoid interference and congestion. Identifying available channels involves sharing information correlated to the user’s location, which puts privacy at risk. Existing methods of encrypting location information are complex and expensive. That makes them impractical to implement on cognitive radio networks, despite the potential benefit.

The new encryption method allows a mobile device to access cognitive radio networks without sharing its location. A third-party entity, referred to as a gateway, is used so that location-identifying information is not sent directly to the service provider and cannot be inferred.

Next steps for location encryption

To move their innovation forward, Hamdaoui, Yavuz and Grissa have filed a provisional patent application through Oregon State University’s Office for Commercialization and Corporate Development (OCCD). If this location encryption method is adopted by a utility company or mobile network provider, mobile users can enjoy better service without sharing sensitive information.