By Tyler Strobl
This spring, Professor David Schanzer got some expert help in teaching his course Privacy, Technology & National Security, PPS 590S, from Duke alumni working in the technology policy area. Six alums spent the entire semester mentoring groups of students on their final projects – a privacy and civil liberties analysis of a new or emerging technology.
“Small class sizes, real-world application, and dedicated professors are why I chose Duke and I was pleased to see that differentiation has continued with David Schanzer’s course,” said alumnus Dave Badanes T’04, a director of cybersecurity at AES Corporation.
The class required students to tackle some of the most pressing issues in tech policy. The students chose a real-world problem and wrote a set of policy recommendations addressed to the relevant “client,” such as a CEO or head of a congressional committee. Helping them along were Duke alums who have experience in the field.
“I really enjoyed having Carla [Franklin T’99] as our alumni mentor because she offered a valuable perspective on the feasibility of our policy proposal. Liberal arts education, especially in an area like technology and privacy, tends to be primarily conceptual. What we often lack is the real-world insight and applicability that Carla was able to provide as someone who has years of hands-on experience working in the tech industry,” stated Alicia Sun PPS ’20.
Most of the alumni are Sanford graduates or studied public policy during their time at Duke. Going on to work in the privacy, technology, and national security sectors, they are perfectly posed to offer expert advice to the student teams.
“The public policy department was always cutting edge, yet I was blown away by the relevance of this class and the assignment. The issues were meaty and very, very real. For those of us who work and breathe in this space, this is EXACTLY the type of problem we are trying to solve, balancing technology, privacy and data security responsibility,” said another mentor Mike Taxay PPS’85, general counsel and chief risk officer at LookingGlass Cyber Solutions.
“The students selected a great problem set at the intersection of policy, technology, law, and current events. Their job was to evaluate and make a recommendation to the CEO of TalkSpace, an app that delivers remote mental health counseling, regarding how best to comply with robust regulatory and legal requirements while building a platform that can be accepted by millions during a pandemic that is placing extraordinary mental stress on the populace,” he said.
The project became even more relevant when COVID-19 struck, as mental health concerns grew and an on-line platform became the primary means for individuals to seek counseling.
Both alumni and students agree that the structure of the class mimics the way they might face problems in the real world. Sun’s team delved into the how YouTube’s algorithm tends to steer users towards extremist content and proposed reforms the company could make to ensure user privacy and control.
“One of the biggest takeaways for me was learning about how much technology has outpaced law. Privacy is generally under protected because technology and information are growing at a tremendous pace. Recent innovations like AI, machine learning and facial recognition that lack adequate regulation have exposed the growing gap between law and technology. I think consumers, like myself, are generally unaware of the extent to which this gap poses threats to our privacy,” Sun said.
Many of the alumni from the spring semester have already volunteered to serve as mentors again and have testified to the positive experience for not just the students but for themselves.
Professor Schanzer praised the mentors, noting that the students’ final reports “were professional grade quality that I would have had no hesitation submitting to their actual clients. I think this level of effort under [the remote learning portion of the semester] is a real tribute to you, and their integrity as students.”
This class not only brings an innovative style of learning to Sanford, but it connects students with experts in the field, all while keeping alumni involved in the process.
As Taxay put it, “The students were great, eager to learn, and did not blink when I suggested they look at the problem through a different lens and rework their analysis. The Sanford School is preparing our nation’s future leaders and I felt privileged to be a small part of it.”
Other Sanford alums that took part in the class were Joe Payne PPS’87. Kaia Haney PPS’17 and Pat Thompson PPS’11.
“This was a win-win-win for everyone involved,” said Schanzer. “Students were exposed to professionals with real world experience in the area in which they were studying, our alumni were inspired by the energy and intellect of our students, and we found a new way for alumni to connect with Duke.”