Deputy U.S. chief technology officer Wong speaks at CMU

Nicole Wong, the deputy U.S. chief technology officer, speaks at CMU.  (credit: Jonathan Leung/Photo Editor) Nicole Wong, the deputy U.S. chief technology officer, speaks at CMU. (credit: Jonathan Leung/Photo Editor)

On Wednesday, Jan. 29, Carnegie Mellon’s computer science department hosted a Data Privacy Day. The day was filled with events geared toward raising awareness for privacy concerns and helping students determine their own privacy on the Internet.

The highlight of the event was a keynote address by Nicole Wong, the deputy U.S. chief technology officer. Wong is one of the top advisers to the White House on the issues of Internet policy and privacy.

Before she began working with the President and the government last June, she worked in the technology industry on the legal teams of companies like Google and Twitter for 18 years. Her work in the industry — helping companies launch their products in compliance with privacy and copyright laws — uniquely prepared her to craft policies for the United States that not only help the companies involved, but also the consumers.

At the start of her speech, Wong stressed the importance of taking a multidisciplinary approach to solving the problems associated with privacy. She noted that Carnegie Mellon’s culture of combining multiple fields is exactly the type of approach that needs to be taken. “We need cutting edge research, like that going on at Carnegie Mellon, to distill the value from the data while protecting privacy,” Wong said.

Wong drew upon the evolution of the seat belt for an analogy about how privacy must evolve over the coming years. As she explained, the seat belt was once obsolete and not used strictly. However, over the years, it began to become a social norm. Today, some people won’t even get into a car that doesn’t have seat belts.

Wong believes that privacy on the Internet is another safety precaution that needs to become a social norm for Internet users.

However, she pinpointed three challenges that those seeking to bolster privacy face. First, there is a lack of understanding of the problem. “We haven’t decided what we want to protect,” Wong said. “There is no universal definition of what privacy is.”

Second, there is not enough awareness for the importance of privacy. “We lack important data about the impact that a loss of privacy has. This data is critical to mobilizing stronger efforts to strengthen privacy,” Wong said. When the seat belt was developed and normalized, there were terrible statistics about how car crashes were the leading cause of death to certain populations in America. These types of high-impact statistics would be crucial to making people aware that their privacy on the Internet should not be taken for granted, according to Wong.

Finally, Wong said, “There is no single platform for technology. This is problematic because no innovator wants to be locked into a single universal safety tool.” This final point stresses the notion that privacy is a problem that cannot be solved externally or as a secondary concern and then applied to different technological products.

Wong stressed the importance of companies themselves designing products with privacy concerns in mind. To this end, she advocated for an increase in privacy engineers so that they could bridge the gap between the policymakers and the software designers to create products that adequately protect users’ privacy.

She commended Carnegie Mellon’s master of science in information technology-privacy engineering, a 12-month program that began this fall, and gave advice to future privacy engineers: “Right now, more than ever, being able to communicate more broadly than your expertise is important.”

Wong hopes to continue the push for successful policies that will not only reform privacy on the Internet, but also spur companies, engineers, and consumers to be more aware of privacy as a legitimate issue that needs to be solved.