Dartmouth researchers invent 'Magic Wand' to protect personal data


Dartmouth College Professor David Kotz demonstrates a commercial prototype of 'Wanda' imparting information such as the network name and password of a WiFi access point onto a blood pressure monitor. Source: Dartmouth College

What does a device that protects personal data on a home network have to do with big data news? It, and other products of its ilk, has implications in two areas: the limitation of accessible consumer data, and the potential for the extension of compliance requirements –perhaps extending to patients' homes.

First, about the background and this device: consumers aren't just concerned about companies and government agencies having access to their data. They are equally concerned with data breaches at big companies and government agencies and on their home networks too. Unfortunately, many consumers don't know how to secure their home devices and networks. They are, however, willing to pay for easy-to-use technology to protect their data. Enter Dartmouth researchers with their "Magic Wand" invention for privacy-seeking luddites.

The system is actually called Wanda and it will be officially presented at the IEEE International Conference on Computer Communications in April. It's part of a National Science Foundation-funded project led by Dartmouth aimed at securing medical records through all data transmissions including to the patient at home.

Wanda is a small piece of hardware that enables the user – be that a patient at home or staff in a clinic – to pull and point its "wand" at a new device to add it to the network and/or securely transfer information.

Specifically, the device enables with a simple wave of its wand:

  1. Device configuration to add it to the wireless local-area network,
  2. pairing the device with other nearby devices, and
  3. Device configuration to enable connection to the relevant individual or organizational account in the cloud.

"People love this new approach to connecting devices to Wi-Fi," says doctoral student Tim Pierson, who developed Wanda, in a statement to the press.

"Many of our volunteer testers remarked on the frustration they've encountered when configuring wireless devices at home and ask when they can take our wand home."

While the device is being tested for use with medical records, plans are already afoot to extend its use.

"We anticipate our `Wanda' technology being useful in a wide variety of applications, not just healthcare, and for a wide range of device management tasks, not just Wi-Fi network configuration," said David Kotz, a professor of computer science at Dartmouth, in the announcement.

As I alluded to in the beginning of this story, the invention and innovation in new, secure, privacy-protecting devices and apps will continue to gnaw away at consumer data availability. Collecting consumer data will become increasingly difficult over time as consumers flock to protective devices, apps and services.

But some of these technologies will also likely add to new compliance issues for companies too. For example, assisting patients in securing their healthcare data at home or on mobile devices – especially as telemedicine and healthcare wearables become more prevalent – may become the responsibility of healthcare providers.

At the moment, clinical researchers and healthcare providers are required to protect healthcare data at the cloud level – not the device level. That's leaving a huge privacy and security gap that will be exploited. It's only a matter of time before regulators seek to close that gap, perhaps by adding a few clauses to HIPAA, for example.

Simply securing healthcare data in the cloud or at the provider's site is rapidly becoming an outdated and woefully insufficient approach to patient privacy protections. Not that providers are currently doing such a bang-up job at that anyway. A few weeks ago a Hollywood hospital had to pay $17,000 in bitcoin to ransomware hackers.

For more:
- see this press release
- see this article

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