The Center for Long-Term Cybersecurity is proud to support the research of postdoctoral researchers from diverse disciplines. Two of these scholars recently accepted tenure-track positions at major universities. This fall, Richmond Wong will be joining Georgia Tech’s School of Literature, Media and Communication as an Assistant Professor, and Sophia Baik will be joining the University of San Diego’s Department of Communication Studies as an Assistant Professor.
We interviewed Richmond and Sophia to learn more about their research, what they gained from working at CLTC, and what they’ll be doing next. (Responses have been edited for length and content.)
Richmond Wong has been involved with CLTC since its inception in 2015. While a PhD student at the UC Berkeley School of Information, he was involved in developing the Cybersecurity Futures 2020 scenarios. In the ensuing years, he has remained close to the center, as a grantee working on diverse projects, and later as a postdoctoral researcher. As part of his work, he published Timelines: Design Activities for Surfacing Values and Ethics in Technologies, which was based on his dissertation research and introduced a group activity aimed at helping organizations uncover potential issues related to ethics and values during the design phase of a new technology.
Q: How would you summarize the work you’ve done at CLTC?
CLTC has let me do so many different things. At a high level, my research is about asking what levers we can use to enact ethical changes in technology design, whether to improve privacy, security, fairness, or inclusivity, which are all things that CLTC cares about.
One of those levers is law and regulation. I was able to explore some of the consequences of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), and how companies think about privacy and data protection. Another lever is figuring out, what do users or communities think about these types of issues, and how can we use those perspectives to change technology design? I was able to do projects around home surveillance cameras and smart cameras, trying to understand how different people use them. In the work we’re doing with the Rose Foundation, we’re talking to people who’ve been formerly incarcerated (and their relatives) to try to understand what their privacy concerns are, and how they interact with these technologies.
My PhD focused on how technology workers think about ethical issues, and how they try to address them in their work. I explored how new processes could help them address those issues in their work. The Timelines activity started with that research.
I’ve recently been doing a fun collaborative project with CLTC researcher Nick Merrill and Michael Madaio, who’s from outside CLTC, looking at what we call “AI ethics toolkits,” which are different collections of tools that aim to help different people address ethical issues in the AI development process. We’re looking at, how do these toolkits frame the work of doing ethics? Do they present ethics as a technical problem, or as a more inclusive project where you need to go out and talk to different stakeholders and understand their needs and perspectives? The ways in which a toolkit frames how you address AI ethics have implications for what actually gets designed down the road.
Q: You were involved in CLTC’s first scenarios (for 2020), and your Timelines work also focuses on using scenarios. What is the value of scenarios and future-oriented thinking, in your experience?
Scenarios can break us out of the assumptions we have about how the world is working today, and help us imagine how things could change for the worse in the future. They also give us an opportunity to think about how we can create something better in the future, which is really important, especially when we’re thinking about bringing in different communities, and asking questions like, who hasn’t been included in the past? How can they be included in the future? That type of future thinking is important.
Identifying different tracks and paths for the future can really crystallize action we can take in the present. If we want the world to look more like this one, or avoid a world that looks like that one, what kinds of things do we need to do now, in our technology development, or in our laws and regulations? It’s trying to get to the worlds we want to get to and avoid the ones we don’t want.
It’s also a really powerful tool for helping people think about the secondary and unintended effects of technology. Often, when something bad happens, the people who developed the technology say, “Oh, we didn’t anticipate that happening.” Scenarios and other future-oriented techniques are really good at helping people imagine and articulate what those possibilities could be, both good or bad. If you can anticipate it, you can better plan for it and address or avoid it.
Q: What will you be doing next?
I’ll be an assistant professor in the Digital Media program at Georgia Tech’s School of Literature, Media and Communication, which is a really cool interdisciplinary department — similar to how CLTC is interdisciplinary and draws from the social sciences, humanities, law and policy, and the STEM fields.
I plan to continue thinking about how these future-oriented methods can be used to think about ethical issues in technology. Many different fields have their own take on forward-looking methods, and I want to try to bring those together. I’m also going to try to do some work on understanding the roles of workers and workplaces: if an engineer at a company cares about privacy or security, what are the organizational barriers they might face in trying to address those issues? I’m looking forward to continuing to do this work. CLTC has been a nice stepping stone to help me start incubating some of these new ideas.
Q: What would you say to someone considering becoming a postdoctoral researcher at CLTC?
CLTC is a really collaborative environment. It’s great for formal research, but there’s also a great informal community. I can reach out to the other researchers and postdocs for feedback on a paper submission, or just ask for advice about some research topic. More broadly, there’s a great team beyond just the researchers. I’ve learned how to write an op ed, for instance, or how to write a grant application, which were not skills I had before.
Sophia Baik came to CLTC in 2021 after earning her PhD in Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California (USC). Her research centers on the politics of technology governance around issues ranging from privacy and surveillance to content moderation and AI. Her dissertation investigated the civil right of data privacy as a regulatory alternative to address discrimination and structural inequities amplified on digital platforms. (Read an interview with Sophia on data privacy here.)
How would you summarize the research you’ve worked on while at CLTC?
My work has been broadly tackling how different stakeholders have responded to emerging privacy regulations, both in the US and beyond. I’m looking into the political economy and politics of data governance, which is getting more and more critical these days.
Some of the specific projects I worked on addressed data privacy regulations like the California Customer Privacy Act (CCPA), as well as upcoming California Privacy Rights Act (CPRA). I’ve also looked into online behavioral advertising and the data surveillance business model, and how that intersects with these emerging regulations around privacy. Privacy regulations are increasingly trying to get at online behavioral advertising by regulating data sharing for cross-contextual marketing and targeting.
I’ve recently collaborated with Jordan Famularo on research about loyalty programs, specifically those that integrate wearable devices and wellness programs. Companies like Walgreens and Nike have loyalty initiatives where users can connect health data collected through wearables like Apple Watch, and they can track their wellness goals and achievements. These programs can be a gateway to very expansive data collection and processing. We want to highlight the complexity of the data ecosystem through the cases of these programs.
I’ve also built upon my dissertation research, which was about data privacy as a civil right. I have continued to do more research on how civil rights are embodied in various issues of data and digital governance.
What will you be doing next?
I will be joining the University of San Diego’s Department of Communication Studies as a tenure-track assistant professor. I was hired specifically for the area of communication policy. It’s a great fit, as I can continue to do the work around data privacy, but also other communication and digital issues moving forward. I have some specific lines of research that I’m planning to conduct as I transition, including the stakeholder dynamics around different digital governance issues. I’m hoping to continue research on privacy regulations, because the CPRA is going into effect next year.
I’m also hoping to do some research on local stakeholder dynamics in San Diego, because there have been some surveillance programs that have been highly criticized, such as a smart streetlight program, where streetlights have cameras. There has been debate about how these will be accessed by law enforcement, for example.
I also hope to continue to do my research looking into business models that are tied to envisioning data as an asset, and how those are regulated. I’m really keen to look into the ways that data governance intersects with antitrust and competition, and expand the civil rights framework for data and digital governance. For example, how can we integrate civil rights values into content moderation efforts in virtual reality? For all these areas, I’d like to do more comparative analysis across regions, and look at similarities and differences between regions.
The key issue that I’m concerned with every day is how to reimagine the data economy itself, because many of the solutions we talk about do not address the core problem, which is capitalizing on personal data and trying to target and manipulate behaviors for purposes that are not always public value oriented. The business models that rely on targeted advertising need to be rethought holistically, not just through a patchwork of solutions. We should be really careful in thinking about how to approach that.
What is the value of CLTC’s mission of looking over the horizon toward the long-term future?
A lot of the issues in data privacy or digital governance that I have been focusing on emerge in part because of short sightedness, and being responsive instead of proactive. Repositioning our mindset into a long-term vision for the digital economy is beneficial, because then we can think ahead and imagine potential problems and ways to address those problems. I really value CLTC’s vision and mission around long-term cybersecurity and scenario-oriented approaches, which has helped me integrate those modes of thinking into my practice and research.
What has been the value of doing your postdoctoral work at CLTC?
The number one answer is the people I met while at CLTC, both internally and beyond. I learned a lot from other researchers who are doing related but distinctive research, both on their own and collaboratively. I have learned a lot about human-centered design approaches from Richmond, and from Jordan Famularo, I’ve learned about how to approach digital harms in new ways. I’ve learned about artificial intelligence policies from Jessica Newman, and about internet governance from Nick Merrill. I have learned so much from these colleagues.
I also appreciate the support from the leadership and communications team at CLTC. The leaders have been so supportive of my research and always gave me insights, advice, and guidance, but also material and emotional support, and that’s not always available in many organizations. Writing grant proposals is one of the skill sets that I learned, and I appreciate that, too. CLTC and Berkeley have such an extensive network and strong reputation, so there are lots of connecting opportunities, as well as speaking opportunities. Many of the professors I met during my campus visits mentioned CLTC, and when I’m doing my research, I also meet a lot of Cal alumni, who say, “Go Bears!” That’s always fun.
CLTC is a really collegial place. For anybody who is transitioning from PhD student mode to researcher mode, being a postdoc at CLTC is a great way to learn, and a great way to get to know yourself better.