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Technique protects privacy when making online recommendations

Researchers devise an efficient protocol to keep a user’s private information secure when algorithms use it to recommend products, songs, or shows

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Written by Adam Zewe, MIT News Office

Algorithms recommend products while we shop online or suggest songs we might like as we listen to music on streaming apps.

These algorithms work by using personal information like our past purchases and browsing history to generate tailored recommendations. The sensitive nature of such data makes preserving privacy extremely important, but existing methods for solving this problem rely on heavy cryptographic tools requiring enormous amounts of computation and bandwidth.

MIT researchers may have a better solution. They developed a privacy-preserving protocol that is so efficient it can run on a smartphone over a very slow network. Their technique safeguards personal data while ensuring recommendation results are accurate.

In addition to user privacy, their protocol minimizes the unauthorized transfer of information from the database, known as leakage, even if a malicious agent tries to trick a database into revealing secret information.

The new protocol could be especially useful in situations where data leaks could violate user privacy laws, like when a health care provider uses a patient’s medical history to search a database for other patients who had similar symptoms or when a company serves targeted advertisements to users under European privacy regulations.

“This is a really hard problem. We relied on a whole string of cryptographic and algorithmic tricks to arrive at our protocol,” says Sacha Servan-Schreiber, a graduate student in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and lead author of the paper that presents this new protocol.

Servan-Schreiber wrote the paper with fellow CSAIL graduate student Simon Langowski and their advisor and senior author Srinivas Devadas, the Edwin Sibley Webster Professor of Electrical Engineering. The research will be presented at the IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy.

The data next door

The technique at the heart of algorithmic recommendation engines is known as a nearest neighbor search, which involves finding the data point in a database that is closest to a query point. Data points that are mapped nearby share similar attributes and are called neighbors.

These searches involve a server that is linked with an online database which contains concise representations of data point attributes. In the case of a music streaming service, those attributes, known as feature vectors, could be the genre or popularity of different songs.

To find a song recommendation, the client (user) sends a query to the server that contains a certain feature vector, like a genre of music the user likes or a compressed history of their listening habits. The server then provides the ID of a feature vector in the database that is closest to the client’s query, without revealing the actual vector. In the case of music streaming, that ID would likely be a song title. The client learns the recommended song title without learning the feature vector associated with it.

“The server has to be able to do this computation without seeing the numbers it is doing the computation on. It can’t actually see the features, but still needs to give you the closest thing in the database,” says Langowski.

To achieve this, the researchers created a protocol that relies on two separate servers that access the same database. Using two servers makes the process more efficient and enables the use of a cryptographic technique known as private information retrieval. This technique allows a client to query a database without revealing what it is searching for, Servan-Schreiber explains.

Overcoming security challenges

But while private information retrieval is secure on the client side, it doesn’t provide database privacy on its own. The database offers a set of candidate vectors — possible nearest neighbors — for the client, which are typically winnowed down later by the client using brute force. However, doing so can reveal a lot about the database to the client. The additional privacy challenge is to prevent the client from learning those extra vectors. 

The researchers employed a tuning technique that eliminates many of the extra vectors in the first place, and then used a different trick, which they call oblivious masking, to hide any additional data points except for the actual nearest neighbor. This efficiently preserves database privacy, so the client won’t learn anything about the feature vectors in the database.  

Once they designed this protocol, they tested it with a nonprivate implementation on four real-world datasets to determine how to tune the algorithm to maximize accuracy. Then, they used their protocol to conduct private nearest neighbor search queries on those datasets.

Their technique requires a few seconds of server processing time per query and less than 10 megabytes of communication between the client and servers, even with databases that contained more than 10 million items. By contrast, other secure methods can require gigabytes of communication or hours of computation time. With each query, their method achieved greater than 95 percent accuracy (meaning that nearly every time it found the actual approximate nearest neighbor to the query point). 

The techniques they used to enable database privacy will thwart a malicious client even if it sends false queries to try and trick the server into leaking information.

“A malicious client won’t learn much more information than an honest client following protocol. And it protects against malicious servers, too. If one deviates from protocol, you might not get the right result, but they will never learn what the client’s query was,” Langowski says.

In the future, the researchers plan to adjust the protocol so it can preserve privacy using only one server. This could enable it to be applied in more real-world situations, since it would not require the use of two noncolluding entities (which don’t share information with each other) to manage the database. 

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Business & Economy

Campus 365 provides cloud-based seamless solutions to educational institutions 

With its ERP software and pioneering technological innovation, Campus 365 is disrupting the education sector and making education more effective and accessible

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Just as technology, and particularly the digital era, has disrupted and improved most major segments of India’s economy, education and training is also undergoing a tech revolution. Education Technology, more commonly known as EdTech, possesses the power to bridge the learning gap thanks to technology’s ability to eliminate geographical barriers. As much as digital adoption is the need of the hour, it is critical to retain a few unparalleled benefits of a traditional classroom setup such as group discussion, personalised support from educators and creating opportunities to work on peer collaborative assignments.

Armed with a mission to empower schools with tools that serve people in the most human, helpful way, Campus 365- an ed-tech start-up incubated by NASSCOM 10000 startup based out of Gurgaon, is providing cloud-based solutions to schools and colleges to manage and track their daily activities seamlessly. With user-friendly mobile apps to help students, parents, and teachers maintain the academic cycle, Campus 365 provides a 360-degree outlook to stakeholders assisting them in making productive decisions to escalate their progress.

“We all know that the introduction of EdTech is transforming the learning process in schools. Initially, technological abilities were not needed for students but these skills are now of much importance. Today, students should have good knowledge of online communication to attend classes, check emails, and submit assignments online and our school ERP gives our students a dedicated platform for this to make them future-ready. We at Campus 365 believe that technology is a powerful instrument that can elevate education to an advanced level, allowing students to learn and collaborate in new ways and we are constantly working towards it” said  Mayank Singh Co- Founder and CEO of Campus 365.

Campus 365 is India’s largest all-in-one app for teachers, schools, and coaching institutes to manage their online and offline classrooms in one place. This online teaching and institute management app helps users create tests & quizzes, share study material & homework, chat with students, take live online classes, record live lectures, teach using digital whiteboard, automate attendance, and much more.

Empowering 1000+ institutes globally, Campus 365’s mission is to enhance student learning by bringing innovation to education. Campus 365 partners with schools and colleges across the country to provide students with a holistic learning experience that makes them future-ready. The company offers a high-quality, end-to-end solution for every stakeholder involved in a child’s learning journey. Campus 365 tackles some of the most critical aspects of School management and reduces school staff workload. By doing so, the company ensures that school teachers nurture the young minds of tomorrow and that the school support staff enjoys using the Campus 365 School ERP engine’s superior apps. Campus 365’s innovative school management software solutions are aimed at providing the best of School ERP features and safety measures to school-going children.

Campus 365’s team is founded with a deep-rooted passion toward delivering value to not just schools, but to parents and teachers as well, who ensure that children are always walking on the path of constant innovation. Today, Campus 365 is used by schools around the world – from kindergarten to higher studies schools and non-profit schools.

Campus 365 has simplified the managing of day-to-day activities such as attendance marking, alerts through mobile applications, fees payment reminders, parent-teacher notifications, and holiday schedules. Every team member in Team Campus 365 has some experience in School and College Management Process and it is also one of the reasons why the company puts concerted efforts into optimising the School and College Management Software. Breaking complex software and making them user-friendly is the top priority of Team Campus 365.

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Edu News

Study Australia successfully concludes the Study Australia Entrepreneurship Challenge

The winners of the SAEC 2022 are – Team Econominds of MITWPU University, Pune

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The Australian Trade and Investment Commission (Austrade- Australian Government agency) successfully concluded its Study Australia Entrepreneurship Challenge (SAEC-2022) in Delhi on September 23, 2022.

The winners of the SAEC 2022 are – Team Econominds of MITWPU University, Pune. The all-girls team has won a Student Tour to Australia, which will take place in March 2023.

Their theme was Circular Economy and Challenge question was – ‘How might we ensure that the clothing we wear is more sustainable’. The members of the team are Nishita Bhattad, Jasmine Mehta, Samiksha Joshi, Shweta Karthik and Muskan Kashyap.

The award is sponsored by Study Adelaide.

During this tour the winners will get a glimpse of the Australian lifestyle and will get the chance to visit and learn more about Australian education institutions and Australian entrepreneurship ecosystem and start-up culture.

The first runners-up of SAEC 2022 are Team Ekta from NMIMS, Mumbai. They have won a $2000 scholarship each, sponsored by Study New South Wales – which the students will be able to use towards the tuition fee for a full-time postgraduate degree program at any NSW education provider.

The second runners-up of SAEC 2022 are Team Glovis Rise from Lovely Professional University, Punjab who bagged a cash prize of $500 each, sponsored by Study Queensland.

Ms. Melissa Bank, Head of International Education Centre of Excellence, Austrade said, “Australia has always been a preferred destination for Indian students when it comes to higher education. We are seeing an increase in the number of Indian students applying to Australian universities every year. With the re-opening of borders after the pandemic, we are witnessing a constant surge in number of students arriving in Australia. The Australian government is committed to provide them the best-in-class education while also equipping them with necessary skills to facilitate their dream of becoming global citizens. Our goal behind setting up this competition was to help students learn about Australian entrepreneurship eco-system and its institutions. I am glad that all the participants were highly involved with this programme and we have been able to highlight the key differential factor that can make them an entrepreneur.”

The Study Australia Entrepreneurship Challenge was an initiative to engage highly-skilled students from the Indian higher education institutes who participated in a series of hybrid events, which were based on Ted X-meets-Hackathon. The participants formed multidisciplinary teams and participated in a two-week program showcasing the opportunities of Australia’s education sector and the Australian entrepreneurial and start-up ecosystems.

As part of the challenge, the teams created a 3-minute pitch video idea on the following challenge themes – Cybersecurity, Circular Economy, Digital Health, and Creative Industries. The participating teams also had access to mentors from Australian academia and industry who guided them in the development of their video pitches. They got in-depth understanding of their chosen topic during academic spotlights that were delivered by Australian academic experts, as well. The jury panel for the contest included Ms. Melissa Bank, Head of International Education Centre of Excellence, Austrade and Mr Sukhmeet Singh, Co-founder, A2P Energy.

In recent years, Australia has been a leading destination for Indian students seeking to study abroad, and it has progressively emerged as a preferred choice for many. Since the border re-opening in mid-December 2021 until 22 July 2022, over 260,000 student visa holders reached Australia.

Furthermore, the Australian Trade and Investment Commission’s “The Study Australia Industry Experience Program (SAIEP)” was launched for current Indian and other international students at Australian universities to enhance their employability skills.

More information about Study Australia and the support for Indian students is available at https://www.studyaustralia.gov.au/india

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University of Essex Online invites applications for PG Cert Global Mental Health and Wellbeing

University of Essex Online courses are delivered by Kaplan Open Learning in partnership with the University of Essex

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The University of Essex Online is inviting applications for the October intake of the PG Cert Global Mental Health and Wellbeing. The course deals with a wide range of topics, including identifying and processing challenges which impact global mental health, as well as interpreting and understanding ethical policies for an international framework.

This course is designed with a specific focus on the critical perspectives of global mental health policy and practices.  Students will gain the skills and experience required to pursue a career as a mentor, coach, manager, mental health lead or wellbeing adviser. With further training, one could also become a specialist nurse, specialist mental health practitioner or health service manager.

Upon successful completion of the course, students will be awarded a certificate from the University of Essex – one of the UK’s top 40 universities (Complete University Guide 2023).

Course duration and delivery:  This is a 100% online part-time course with an indicative study duration of eight months.

Course content is delivered through a cutting-edge virtual learning environment (VLE), giving students 24/7 access to study materials, such as lecturecasts. This offers a contemporary and accessible way to interact with multimedia content and check understanding via engaging and interactive activities.

Application deadline: 20 October 2022 

Entry requirements: 

·       For the academic entry route, students must have an undergraduate degree from an approved institution, equivalent to a UK Honours degree, or a relevant professional qualification.

·       For the work experience entry route, students must have at least three years of work experience (voluntary or paid) within a relevant field, supported by two appropriate references.

·       As part of the application process, applicants will be asked to take a short aptitude test which is designed to evaluate their ability to handle the intellectual and practical demands of the course. 

·       If English isn’t your first language, your ability should be equivalent to an IELTS (Academic) score of 6.5. If you don’t hold an IELTS or equivalent qualification, the University offers a free online English test.

How to apply:  

Please visit: https://online.essex.ac.uk/apply/

Tuition fee: £3,945

Scholarship:  Merit-based scholarships are available based on prior academic achievements and work experience.

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