While prominent Princetonians are shaping the tech-policy world as elected officials or executives at Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, others wield influence in less visible roles. These alumni are working at the intersection of technology and policy in government, journalism, and nonprofits.
Erica Portnoy ’15
Making websites more secure
Erica Portnoy ’15 likes technical challenges — the “fun stuff” of computer science — but she also cares about societal and ethical issues in computing that don’t always have clear solutions. “I like to say that I’m into tech policy because computers are terrible,” Portnoy deadpans. “It’s a joke — I love computers. But the things that computing has enabled are kind of scary sometimes.” For example, the same data collection that yields new and valuable insights also enables the kind of inexpensive mass surveillance that was once relegated to works of dystopian fiction.
As a staff technologist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in San Francisco, Portnoy works to improve online privacy and encryption. She contributes to Certbot, an online tool that makes it easier for people to create the certificates needed to install HTTPS (HTTP secure protocol)on their websites. HTTPS improves privacy because it encrypts the data exchanged between the website and a user’s browser, guarding against eavesdropping and other efforts to tamper with data.
Portnoy says she appreciates the dedication she sees from her peers at EFF, who range from technologists to attorneys and policy advocates: “You’re working with people who really care about fixing the world in these specific ways.”
Joe Calandrino *12
Guarding against digital fraud
The Federal Trade Commission’s fundamental charge is consumer protection. “We deal with everything from fraud to deceptive practices to privacy policies that might make claims that actually don’t hold up in practice, and increasingly what we do either deals with technology directly or has some sort of a technical element to it,” says Joe Calandrino *12, the research director of the FTC’s Office of Technology Research and Investigation, or OTech.
When Calandrino entered Princeton’s computer-science Ph.D. program, he expected to study theoretical cryptography, drawing on his math background. But he soon gravitated to more practical work, joining the team that contributed to a 2007 review of California’s electronic voting machines. His team documented the ways one could tamper with a particular touch-screen model; after reviewing the findings, the state decertified the machines. Seeing the clear, real-world effects of that research changed his outlook. “I really got pulled in,” he says.
At the FTC, Calandrino provides technical expertise for investigations and contributes to another key part of the organization’s mission: prevention. OTech conducts its own research and works with experts from academia and nonprofits. Recent workshops have explored data collection by drones, the risks of ransomware, and consumer privacy on “smart TVs.”
Jason Cai ’17
Spurring action with an app
For a course assignment in his junior year, Jason Cai ’17 tracked his “media diet” for three days — every Facebook scroll, every news story read — and realized he was missing some crucial information. Sure, he knew about the latest political debates. But what were his elected representatives saying? How were they voting? Cai had no clue. Committing to a daily routine of seeking out that information seemed unrealistic. What he really needed were alerts on his phone — “the perfect passive way” to pay attention, he says.
Cai, a computer science major, set out to create Informe, a free, nonpartisan iPhone app (available at www.informe-app.com) that notifies users about the latest developments on Capitol Hill. Users enter a home address and immediately receive a customized view featuring the representatives for their district and state. They can track legislation, scan the social-media feeds of their senators and representatives in Congress, and — most importantly, in Cai’s view — contact them by email or phone with a single tap.
In August, Cai began working as a programmer at Google, but he plans to keep Informe going. “I’m sure that means some busy weekends,” he says.
Timothy B. Lee *10
Tracking cutting-edge issues
Journalist Timothy B. Lee *10 has never been one to chase down scoops about industry power brokers or product releases. “I’m more interested in explaining complicated technologies, talking to experts, and using public-domain materials,” says Lee, a D.C.-based senior tech-policy reporter for Ars Technica. “I think the value-add I do is kind of synthesizing and clarifying.”
Lee recognized his calling in journalism while working as a summer intern at Google: For programmers, it’s a dream job, but he was more excited to go home in the evenings and write blog posts. (At the time, his blog covered a range of tech issues and personal interests like urban planning and political philosophy.)
Since completing his master’s degree in computer science at Princeton, Lee has worked as a tech reporter for Forbes, The Washington Post, and Vox. His topics have included net neutrality, autonomous vehicles, cryptocurrencies, digital-copyright law, and the feasibility of electric-powered airplanes.
Readers of Ars Technica, which caters to technology pros and others in the know, demand precision. If you haven’t done your research, you’ll hear about it, he says: “Having that voice in the back of my head gives me an incentive to do better work.”
Joshua Tauberer ’04
Advocating for open data
Aug. 6 marked the end of an era for Joshua Tauberer ’04 and his website, GovTrack.us, which publishes congressional bills, voting records, and original research. He celebrated with a tweet:
I just shut off GovTrack’s bulk XML data rsync server, after 12 years, since Congress/@USGPO is doing that now.
That Tauberer had created the go-to feed of congressional data, using screen-scraping programs to identify, copy, and reformat the text of bills and resolutions from a clunky Library of Congress site, was remarkable. That it took the government more than a decade to catch up was disheartening. So when the open-data efforts of the U.S. Government Publishing Office finally replaced Tauberer’s work, it was a victory worthy of an exclamation point.
What’s next for GovTrack? Its current offerings include summaries of bills written in layman’s terms and detailed analyses of notable legislation. Tauberer heads a team of four people who run the site (all part time, funded by advertisers and donors), and he continues to be an advocate for open data.
Tauberer also serves on D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Open Government Advisory Group and has participated in local hackathons, including one earlier this year that helped the District’s agencies redesign commonly used forms. “I try to roll up my sleeves and work with government when I can,” he says.