Sophie Veys, a 4th-year CS major working with Assistant Professor Blase Ur’s SUPERgroup, received one of four Outstanding Undergraduate Research Awards from the Computing Research Association (CRA).

The award program, which “recognizes undergraduate students in North American colleges and universities who show outstanding research potential in an area of computing research,” also gave honorable mention to two additional undergraduates, Shriya Bansal and Shicheng Liu.

Veys has worked with SUPERgroup since her first month on campus, when she reached out to Ur looking to get started early on computer science research. There, she gained experience with user-centered research and the privacy, security, and human-computer interaction specialites of the group, seeing the connection between the work and the technology around her.

“I just fell in love with usable security and privacy,” Veys said. “It’s something that I’m constantly nagging my friends and family about, telling them to turn their location services off and, ‘isn’t that creepy that we were just talking about a topic and now Facebook’s advertising it.’ It really became a passion for me, to convince my friends that they should care too.”

In her first project, Veys studied personalized advertising – how companies gather information on consumers, how they use it, and how people feel about the process when they learn more about how it works. From there, she grew interested in Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), two new laws governing online privacy rights and transparency. Both laws require companies to provide data downloads on request of the information they have collected about their users.

However, these downloads are often in formats, such as JSON or CSV, designed for machine readability or programming purposes. With her collaborators in SUPERgroup, Veys conducted user studies where researchers gave participants their data downloads from sites such as Amazon or Spotify and a “scavenger hunt” to find particular bits of information in the file. Participants shared opinions about their data and ideas for redesigning data downloads to be more user-friendly. The team then uses the results of these focus groups to create new apps that make the information users care about easier to access and understand.

“We want to support all the different reasons people might want to access their data, and perhaps demonstrate to them some things that they should care about, such as privacy,” Veys said.

Veys has co-authored papers at HCI and security conferences such as SOUPS, ConPro, USENIX, and CHI, where she was on a paper that received an honorable mention award in 2020. The CRA award grants Veys funding to attend a conference of her choice in the future.

Honorable Mentions

Bansal and Liu were two of 77 students to receive the honorable mention designation in this year’s CRA awards. Bansal is pursuing a joint BS/MS in computer science and works with Assistant Professor Marshini Chetty in the Amyoli Internet Research Lab, using natural language processing and topic modeling techniques to analyze the effectiveness of apps from the Google Play Store in teaching children about privacy and security.

“I was interested in studying children’s relationship with online privacy and security, especially given the extent to which devices are intertwined with their education, relationships, and daily function,” Bansal said. “Our research has found that although parents seek resources for teaching digital citizenship to their children, few exist. I hope that this work will encourage developers to build educational features that empower children with technology and allow them to interact with their devices in a safe and responsible manner.”

Liu, a CS and mathematics double major with a minor in physics, is a member of Professor Shan Lu’s research group, where he has studied the use of machine learning cloud APIs and developed a testing tool for this kind of software.

“Computer science research — and systems research in particular — interests me for the potential to discover existing problems in widely used systems and to provide optimal solutions or products that have real practical impacts,” Liu said. “The high quality of UChicago CS courses has motivated me to pursue this field further, and the high faculty-to-student ratio also means that ample research opportunities are open to undergraduates.”

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