Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Remembering Ada Lovelace through Alissa Cooper

Alissa Cooper is Chief Computer Scientist at CDT (Center of Democracy and Technology) in Washington DC. I first met her at Yahoo building in Sunnyvale CA when she was on a panel about privacy issues in behavioral targeting. I was very impressed by her passion, knowledge and ability to explain complicated issues with simplicity. Writing a blog about her is indeed a befitting tribute in the honor of Ada Lovelace Day.

CDT is doing important work on promoting our liberty and protecting our privacy in always connected digital world. Alissa helps CDT in these main areas: consumer privacy and Internet openness. If your computers have not been exposed to internet spyware for quite some time you should thanks Alissa. She established linkages between advertisers and adware programs. She used her computer forensic skills to follow the money trail into ads and identify the companies that were main drivers of spyware. She again used similar skills in discovering what company’s uses stealth flash cookies to avoid detection and deletion by consumers.

More recently she has been focusing on tougher problem on invasive behavioral targeting (BT). The issue of BT is complex to comprehend for average non-technical users in terms of risks such technologies poses. She is instrumental in starting a discussion in this arena. Her big contribution was preempting an invasive initiative by ad networks and some broadband providers to profile internet users without their approval and knowledge. This was important first step to safeguard user privacy and giving them control over their information access. Alissa is going a step further and trying to develop a comprehensive framework to protect consumer privacy. This undoubtedly is not only ethical practice but also makes a very good business sense. She has taken multi-pronged approach:

1. Industry discussion: Alissa is part of various discussions held by industry observers like TRUSTe and FCC. She is travelling across the US in the aisles of corporate America to bring privacy awareness among various communities including engineering & marketing. Recently she was at Yahoo! in a panel discussion on behavioral advertising arranged by TRUSTe & CDT. She also engaged with FCC by filing comments & participating in open discussions. Alissa is also co-chair of “geopriv” IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) working group that is developing standards to protect sharing and transfer of the user geographic location. Generating discussion and bridging privacy understanding gap among various constituents with passion is her key hallmark.

2. Encouraging privacy by design: Alissa is also doing pioneering work in developing frameworks & architectures that tackle privacy as product component. Her work on this was published in two much respected publications: “ACM Transactions on the Web” and “IEEE Security and Privacy”. Think of this as a privacy button on your phone. Thanks to her privacy will be a key component of the internet enabled products and it will be as easy as pushing that button.

3. Closing loopholes in privacy laws: Alissa has also been educating lawmakers on the Capitol Hill on the intricacies of privacy. Recently she gave testimony to House committee on Energy & Commerce subcommittee. She educated the committee on “What Your Broadband Provider Knows about Your Web Use: Deep Packet Inspection and Communications Laws and Policies". She is also involved in educating lawmakers on privacy related legislative issues. The work in this area will push the companies to respect and develop means to protect and maintain individual privacy.

Alissa’s affair with computer technology started in high school. Upon her visit to Stanford she was convinced that it is what she needs to do. So she joined at Stanford University for her bachelors in computer science. As if that was not enough she stayed to get Masters Degree in Computer Systems. Her tryst with security and privacy began at Stanford while working under Prof. John Mitchell. She worked on a project for government on demystifying the world of shadow forums on Internet. She performed some early research on the relationship between these forums and botnets. This is where she realized that the solution for these problems is not alone the technology but a combination of ethics and law. She took courses on these subjects to find solutions for these emerging privacy problems. This combination multidisciplinary knowledge of technology, ethics and policy led to her being recruited by CDT.

Alissa is well rounded personality. While at Stanford she was involved in sports as well. She was part of Stanford’s gymnastics team. Her team was consistently ranked among the top programs in the country. She was also involved in tutoring other student-athletes. She was involved in Stanford Women in Computer Science, a student group whose purpose was to motivate women to pursue computer science. She demystifies technology and championing CS to women that it is not as scary as it looks. She offers advice that being in technology does not mean spending long hours in front of computer writing code. There are many field work applications of CS and her job at CDT is an example of that.

Alissa is very passionate. She is very upbeat about future of internet & technology. She sees it becoming increasingly integrated into people's lives. Seeking medical advices, buying houses on internet is a reality today. The fast paced innovations bring new privacy challenges to forefront. She cites example that CDT was founded in 1999 with frameworks focused on offline world. Everyday you have new privacy issue. Now in high-speed always connected world we need new sets of frameworks and policy thinking. She believes that Obama’s tech savvy administration gives new impetus to solve these complex issues.

I hope that the reader’s and younger generations draws inspiration from the ground work Alissa has been doing to protect and safeguard out privacy. Today after 150 years of Ada Lovelace the women in technology are indeed excelling. Find Ada in Alissa Cooper and many other women is testament of women’s contribution to technology today and years to come.

I wish Alissa all the best and hope she continues to motivate women today and in future to pursue careers & excel in technology.

1. Alissa Cooper: http://www.cdt.org/staff/acooper.php
2. CDT Annual Report: http://cdt.org/about/2008-2009_annualreport.pdf
3. IETF Geopriv Working group home page: http://www.ietf.org/html.charters/geopriv-charter.html