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The Privacy Advisor | Carnegie Fellows selections help Cranor, Kosseff advance privacy projects Related reading: Garante alleges OpenAI's ChatGPT violated GDPR



Summertime is defined by increased freedom, which many use to relax, recharge and reset. This summer will be anything but free and easy for Lorrie Faith Cranor, CIPT, and Jeff Kosseff, CIPP/US.

Cranor and Kosseff are set to ramp up work on their privacy-related research projects that recently gained backing from the Carnegie Corporation of New York's Andrew Carnegie Fellows Program. The two-year fellowship aims to “provide support for high-caliber scholarship in the social sciences and humanities.” Cranor and Kosseff are among 32 fellows that will receive $200,000 in funding to go toward project research and the publishing of results.

Cranor, the FORE Systems professor of computer science and of engineering and public policy at Carnegie-Mellon University, is exploring multiple privacy and cybersecurity research themes in “security, privacy and human behavior.” Kosseff, an assistant professor of cybersecurity law at the U.S. Naval Academy, is set to publish a book, “United States of Anonymous Speech,” before the end of 2021 that analyzes the unique right to anonymous speech that U.S. citizens possess.

While Cranor plans to go down a few avenues in her research, all roads will lead back to one focus.

Lorrie Faith Cranor

“They’re all related to how we can evaluate the usability of security and privacy tools for users,” said Cranor, who directs the Carnegie Mellon CyLab Usable Privacy and Security Laboratory and is also a former chief technologist for the Federal Trade Commission. “We’re going to do these user studies to try and understand methods for assessing whether people can make decisions regarding security and privacy, but also look at what influences the decisions they make.”

Preliminary studies for Cranor’s project are underway, including the examination of how websites go about employing informed consent and opt-out mechanisms.

She has surveyed nearly 150 sites thus far, working through each to see how many clicks it takes to opt out of personalized advertising while examining what kinds of words are next to the various opt-out or consent buttons. Cranor is also using case studies in her opt-out research, such as bringing subjects into the lab for observation as they navigate sites and explain aloud their approach and feelings about consent and opt-out processes.

Those early tests have yet to reveal any big-time conclusions, but Cranor is noticing one common thread.

“A lot of consumer difficulty with this could be solved if there was consistency,” Cranor said. “We look at food and nutrition labels, and you’re not born knowing what cholesterol or sodium is. But every food product has a similar label and you learn how to use it and, over time, learn the vocabulary on it. I think looking out at privacy policies and choice mechanisms … they’re all over the place. It’s just interesting to see how much diversity there is, and not in a good way.”

Cranor added that the goal of her research is to develop a list of best practices that will be compelling enough to have “all organizations take on the same approach and help people learn that approach more efficiently.”

Like Cranor, Kosseff is drawing from his prior experiences for the basis of his research, which asserts a right to anonymous speech in the U.S. based on precedents set as far back as the Federal Papers in 1788 and upheld by the First Amendment today.

Kosseff first came across anonymous speech as an attorney practicing media law.

Jeff Kosseff

“I would represent websites and newspapers that would be subpoenaed, but not sued directly. There would be lawsuits for anonymous user comments on those sites,” Kosseff said. “The courts developed a fairly complex, multi-pronged test where you don’t have an absolute right to be anonymous online, but you have to provide a strong showing to overcome this First Amendment right to anonymous speech.

“I was just so fascinated by this idea that the United States has this right to anonymity that is not available or as strong in many other countries. That got me thinking what it’s like in Europe and China.”

The intrigue has evolved into his study, which will include comparing and contrasting the right to anonymous speech in foreign countries versus the U.S. Those examinations will come based off interviews Kosseff will do with judges and lawyers from the U.S. and abroad.

“You can’t really just examine the U.S. in a vacuum. The real value is looking at how things are in other countries,” Kosseff said. “Europe has very few protections for online anonymity because their values on free speech are much less than the U.S. China and a number of other countries have even less tolerance for anonymous speech, and a lot have real name laws where you’re required to use your name when posting.”

This will be the second book authored by Kosseff, who published “The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet” in April. Along the same lines as his debut title, Kosseff is hoping his research can effectively show how anonymous speech has brought the country to its current landscape — for better or worse.

“I want people to understand how this First Amendment right has shaped our daily lives while it really isn’t what you typically associate with the First Amendment,” Kosseff said. “This isn’t about government restriction on speech, but the right to express ideas and statements anonymously. I want to demonstrate how it’s made the U.S. experience with the internet a very unique one.”

Correction: An original version of this story stated the Carnegie Fellows Program was a Carnegie-Mellon University program. The fellowship is sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash


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