Jean Yang on Privacy

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We recently contacted a few industry experts to share their opinions on a subject that matters to them.

Featured on the blog today is Jean Yang — a final-year PhD  student at MIT and Harvard alumnus. Her research interests include programming language design, and privacy and security. She was in a Gigaom Structure podcast in January 2015, discussing internet misogyny and programming for privacy.

Here’s what she had to say!


Jean Yang | Photo by Daniel Jackson

TGD: Why are you passionate about privacy?

JEAN YANG: This is a good question. I am interested in privacy because I’m deeply interested in people sharing information with each other.

I love the social spaces that the internet creates. I’ve had an email address since 1995 and a website since 1997. I’ve always loved the random connections I make online that sometimes turn into very real friendships. Through encouraging my friends to do more online, I’ve realized that reliably preserving privacy is a crucial part of making people feel comfortable enough to participate in online spaces. We’ve got a long way to go and I’m excited to work on solving this problem.

Another reason I’m interested in privacy is because I think there is a *ton* of very cool data that we can have our hands on if people trusted us to preserve their privacy. Right now, there are interesting public data sets about things that are already pretty much public: for instance, census data on how people live and how people commute. Every now and then people with access to more secret data will do something fun with it. A great example of this is OKCupid analyzing dating profiles and messages to bring us data-backed stories on how people represent themselves and court each other online. Imagine a world where this kind of data could be made public for anyone with spare time to analyze–while preserving guarantees about the privacy of individual people. I don’t know whether such a world is possible and what exactly it would take to get there, but I’m excited to see what happens.

Finally, it’s just really intellectually fun to think about how information flows in order to reveal secrets. I like designing programming models because I like thinking about how people should think. Applying this to privacy means I get to think about how people should think about how secrets gets revealed. Meta fun. :)

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Thanks to Jean for sharing her insightful thoughts! Stay updated with her posts and projects via the following links.

Jean Yang Online: Website | Twitter | Quora | Github

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