UK researcher developing anti-tracking and robocall-free architecture

Yang Xiao, Ph.D., assistant professor in Department of Computer Science
The NSF will support Yang Xiao with $300,000 over four years for his research on anonymous mobile access architecture. Jeremy Blackburn | Research Communications.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Dec. 1, 2023) — A University of Kentucky researcher and his team are tackling a long-standing privacy challenge faced by many people who use cell phones — mobile tracking and automatic voice calls, commonly known as robocalls.

The project, supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), is led by Yang Xiao, Ph.D., assistant professor in Department of Computer Science in the UK Stanley and Karen Pigman College of Engineering. Its goal is to develop an anti-tracking and robocall-free mobile access architecture to provide maximum privacy protection for mobile users.

As NextG mobile technology advances, Xiao says convenience can come at the cost of mobile user’s personal privacy.

“We found that there was an urgent need to address the mobile tracking and robocall scam problem,” Xiao said. “Not only had we seen news of mobile user’s data being breached and scam calls causing huge economic loss to our society, but we also found that there were foundational causes to these problems in incumbent mobile network architectures that needed to be addressed through new technical approaches.”

One such approach is to allow mobile users to access mobile networks with an anonymous verifiable credential (VC) without revealing their real identity, preventing possible mobile tracking by curious mobile network operators. To fight robocalls and scam calls, the architecture will also feature a mechanism that allows users to enable only their trusted callers to call them, a caller credential — like the “accept a friend” request used in social media apps.

The biggest challenge is ensuring mobile users will still have the same level of usage experience when the mobile network operators will not know the real user identity — while still having to support voice calls and usage billing functions on par with existing 5G services. Xiao says his team is making positive progress and believes the final solution can achieve an optimal balance between security and usability.

Xiao is working closely with two UK Ph.D. students, Ifteher Alom and Yue Li, undergraduate researcher Athan Johnson, and research collaborators at Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech.

“I always received feedback on the strong need for such privacy-preserving technologies, and some were motivated by personal experiences that they or their loved-ones had fallen prey to mobile privacy leakages and scam calls. This gave me great fulfillment about our solutions and the project,” said Xiao.

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Science Foundation under Award Number 2247561. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. 

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