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Film featuring professor's research earns national attention

Assistant professor David Choffnes' research made possible a film that's attracting national attention at film festivals. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

How would you feel if someone were following you everywhere you went? To your home, to work, to dinner? Or, more specifically, how would you feel if something were following you?

That’s the premise of Harvest, a new short film that harnesses the data tracking system developed by Northeastern assistant professor David Choffnes to illustrate—darkly—just how much our phones really know about us.

Director Kevin Byrnes teamed up with Choffnes to utilize the ReCon system Choffnes and his colleagues developed in 2015. The software offers a trio of functions: It detects leaks of “personally identifiable information,” or PII; it alerts users to those breaches; and it enables users to control the leaks by specifying what information they want blocked and from whom.

A still from the film “Harvest.” Image courtesy of David Choffnes

Choffnes, whose research interests include measuring internet-wide systems and designing solutions to address problems with reliability, performance, efficiency, security, and privacy, said there would be no documentary without the data from ReCon.

Byrnes echoed the sentiment.

“I wanted raise awareness about our mobile phones and how they are being used by third parties to understand our movements and habits,” he said. “The film was designed to resonate at an emotional level, but without the data provided by ReCon, it would have lacked a necessary jolt of reality to truly connect with viewers.”

The filmmaking team ran the system on one woman’s phone for a week to see how often her personal information was being leaked to third-party applications.

“This is a direct application of our research for the film,” Choffnes said. “When we started this, in March 2016, we had no idea what we’d find. We ended up finding something that was surprising even for us.”

Indeed, it was so surprising that the film has garnered the attention of several prestigious film festivals across the nation. It premiered at the Aspen Shortsfest last September—a festival that screens just 64 films out of more than 4,000 submissions—and will be showcased at the Seattle International Film Festival, the Brooklyn Academy of Music CinemaFest, and the Rooftop Films Summer Series in the coming weeks and months.

The notoriety, Choffnes said, is helping to spread awareness of online privacy issues to a broader range of people. “The goal is to get people engaged with thinking about and understanding privacy, and understanding their options when it comes to their own privacy,” Choffnes said. “Without some of the developments from our research, this type of visibility wouldn’t have happened; this film wouldn’t have happened.”