Spencer Gulbronson ’12 Helps Students Enhance Their Digital Security

Spencer Gulbronson '12
Spencer Gulbronson '12
Facebook is one of the Internet’s most popular phenomena; the site already has more than 400 million active users, and an average of 374,000 new people join every day. But users may not realize that putting a lot of their personal information on Facebook could leave them open to identity theft and other security issues. Working under Associate Professor of Computer Science Mark Bailey, Spencer Gulbronson ’12 is creating exercises to inform college students about security threats that could put their most essential information at risk.

In the fall, Professor Bailey will offer the course "Secrets, Lies and Digital Threats." This summer, Gulbronson will be conducting laboratory development research to support many of the topics covered in this course. As young adults are increasingly active on public web sites such as Twitter, Facebook and MySpace, Gulbronson and many others see a high potential for malicious use of this information that people so trustingly publish. What information are you at risk for putting out? What information should you keep secret? These are questions that both Gulbronson and Professor Bailey intend to answer for inquiring digital-age minds.

One topic that Gulbronson is currently exploring is the use of cryptography for increased digital security. In her work, Gulbronson demonstrates how letter frequencies from the English language can easily break simple encryption methods such as a substitution cipher. A substitution cipher is a type of encryption that replaces each letter in the original text with a different letter from the alphabet.

Students can then build on this knowledge of simple encryption methods and their vulnerabilities in order to understand more complicated cryptography, such as public key encryption, which is essential in the communication of confidential data via email. When sending messages using public key encryption, the sender uses a key that is publically available, and the recipient uses a secret code to decipher and understand the message. The effect of this is that anyone intercepting the message thinks they are able to decode it, but in reality they lack the secret code and, thus, cannot understand it. Encryption is an increasingly common practice as digitized companies become more aware of digital threats, so knowledge of these security practices is essential even for the recreational Internet user.

Gulbronson is also developing labs that pertain to web sites’ privacy policies. “Those are things that people don’t really look at,” Gulbronson said, which is why a lab that raises a student’s awareness is crucial. Much fuss has been made of Facebook’s hole-filled privacy policy, but other file-sharing sites like Limewire are also risky for unsuspecting users and subtly mention that their policies are subject to change at any time. Digital threats are also becoming more widely discussed in the media, making the discourse of spyware and privacy policies an increasingly important one.

A rising junior, Gulbronson has a major in mathematics and a minor in computer science. She is a site coordinator for HAVOC and a member of the Young People’s Project in Utica, a nationwide organization that teaches schoolchildren about math. She will tutor at the Quantitative Literacy Center in the fall and hopes to study abroad in Australia in the spring.

Spencer Gulbronson '12 is a graduate of Thousand Oaks High School (Calif.).
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