FEATURE — Spring 2004
   

 

Lorrie Cranor also applies her designing mind to making beautiful quilts (in background in photo).

 

Under Wraps

 

Named one of the top young innovators by Technology Review, alumna Lorrie Cranor works to protect your private information on the Web. She also lends her creativity to quilt-making.

by David Linzee

You're at your computer, clicking through cyberspace. You arrive at a new Web site, which presents its privacy policy. You scroll through the verbiage to the bottom and click "I agree." It's the only choice you have, if you want to use the Web site. Then you go about your business. Meanwhile, the Web site and your browser are gossiping about you. You don't know how much personal information you're giving up, and now it's beyond your control.

Lorrie Cranor is working to change this situation. Cranor, B.S. '92, M.S. '93, M.S. '96, D.Sc. '96, is an associate research professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh who has written and lectured widely on technology and policy. Privacy is one of her main concerns. "All of us should be entitled to draw our own boundaries," she says.

As a researcher at the AT&T Labs in Florham Park, New Jersey, from 1996 to 2003, she was on the team that developed P3P (Platform for Privacy Preferences). The P3P software allows computer users to set their own privacy policy and to tell their computer how much personal information they are willing to disclose. When users go to a new Web site, they inadvertently ask their computer to speed-read the site's policy and to detect whether it conforms with theirs, or exactly how it differs. Users can then decide if they want to deal with this Web site or click on.

P3P has been approved by the World Wide Web Consortium and adopted by many Web sites. It is built into all major browsers. Cranor, author of the book Web Privacy with P3P, now is at work on version 1.1. She says, "We're off to a good start." She expects to see Web sites continuing to sign on because sites have a strong incentive. Surveys show that privacy remains a big worry for consumers; it is a major reason why many never shop on the Internet. With P3P enabling consumers to make side-by-side comparisons, a consumer-friendly privacy policy could help a Web merchant stand out from the competition.

P3P is an example of Cranor's beliefs about how technology should work in society. She looks forward to a day when computers may actually enhance privacy rather than threatening it. Current technology makes it all too easy to obtain, store, and transmit information. Changes in technology could make it possible to do basic transactions without releasing unnecessary information. But Cranor doesn't underestimate the difficulties in maintaining the balance between convenience and privacy. "We want information to be available, but protected," she explains.     

Last summer, Cranor became involved in a much-reported controversy over property rights on the Web. The motion picture industry, complaining that consumers were pirating movies on DVD and trading them over the Internet, wanted new technology built into DVD players that would restrict unauthorized copying. The problem, as consumer advocates and civil libertarians pointed out, was that it restricted legitimate uses, too.

Cranor and her colleagues decided to find out if Hollywood's complaint was justified. Working out a way to sample the movies moving around the Internet, they found evidence that in most cases the culprits were not consumers but movie industry insiders. "Focusing so heavily on consumers may not be fair," Cranor says. Her group's report caused a flap in the media and may have motivated changes in how the Motion Picture Association of America distributes movies to its members for Oscar voting.

"We want information to be available, but protected," Cranor explains.

Cranor, who was listed by Technology Review magazine in October 2003 as one of the top 100 innovators under age 35, finds that her high profile often causes her to get involved in surprising issues. Fortunately, she says, "My education prepared me to do a lot of things I hadn't expected."

When she arrived at Washington University, in fact, she did not even plan to study computer science. Having taught herself to program in fifth grade and taken computer courses throughout high school, she was tired of computers and more interested in engineering and public policy. She ultimately earned her doctorate in this subject, but along the way she was persuaded to complete a master's degree in computer science. She also founded Crossroads, a magazine for computer science students, which goes to some 20,000 subscribers worldwide today, and she represented graduate students on the University's Board of Trustees. She wrote her dissertation on electronic voting.

Since the 2000 presidential election, many have looked to computer technology for a way to eliminate hanging chads and other embarrassments. But Cranor is skeptical. The Internet, at present, is just not secure enough, and even installing touch-screen computers at polling places may cause more problems than it solves, she says.

"If someone demands a recount, what would you count?" she asks, pointing up the advantage of paper ballots. She also doubts whether making voting more convenient would raise voter turnout. Still, Cranor thinks that although electronic voting may not be the way to pick a president, it will be used more and more widely in professional society, campus, and neighborhood association elections for its relative ease.

She has also developed a new type of voting system called "Declared Strategy Voting" with her Washington University graduate adviser, Ron Cytron, professor of computer science and engineering. This innovation may transform politics one day by giving third-party candidates a real chance. Voters would be able to cast one vote for a third-party candidate they were really enthusiastic about and another for the major-party candidate who, according to public opinion polls, was a serious contender. If the polls turned out to be wrong, the vote for the third-party candidate would be counted. Cranor's interest in computer tools for broadening and energizing the democratic process has led her to work on Publius, a Web-publishing system that resists censorship and guarantees the anonymity of political writers.

She also is devoted to family life. Her husband, Chuck, M.S. '92, D.Sc. '98, is also on the faculty at Carnegie Mellon. They have a son, Shane, and a daughter, Maya. Cranor's avocations include the saxophone, which she took up when she played for the University's pep band, and quilting. She finds designing quilts on Power Point a great way to pass the time on planes and in long meetings. "Everybody thinks I'm working," she confides.

Now, she is particularly interested in making software interfaces more transparent, "so real people can actually use them." She intends to continue to write and speak out on issues such as privacy, too, because it will take more than new technology to solve the problems raised by technology. Leaders in business, law, and government must be persuaded to support policy changes. In privacy and other areas, Cranor says, "I'd like to see us work toward a situation where individuals can have control."

David Linzee is a free-lance writer based in St. Louis, Missouri.