Last week, tech policy folks around the world were buzzing about Data Privacy Day, an international event about raising awareness of data privacy and protection issues and solutions. Sanford is certainly home to plenty of Data Privacy Day enthusiasts, as the school has a growing tech policy community.
Four years ago, Sanford launched a Cyber Policy Program, and the man behind it, Professor David Hoffman, also helped create Duke’s Data Privacy Day symposium this year. Held February 2-3, the event focused on the impact and implication of the Dobbs Decision on health data privacy and the legal landscape in its aftermath.
Here’s a look at what else Sanford’s program and faculty have discussed or engaged in around data privacy and tech policy recently.
Data Brokers in the News
The Sanford Cyber Policy Program's data broker report, authored by Joanne Kim, has garnered significant attention, being cited by 60 media outlets and leading to a nationally aired interview on PBS Newshour featuring Justin Sherman, a senior fellow at Sanford overseeing the data brokerage research project. The report highlights the lack of transparency and risks in the data broker industry concerning the sale and exchange of sensitive mental health data of Americans. It reveals that some data brokers are openly marketing individuals' mental health data with limited customer vetting and data use controls. The report argues for the need of comprehensive federal privacy regulations or expanded HIPAA protections alongside bans on the sale of mental health data. The project's goal is to provide accessible research on technology policy issues, with the report serving as a reminder of the importance of actionable research.
Justin Sherman Congressional Testimony Data Brokers
In a pivotal event in Washington, D.C., Sanford's research took center stage as Justin Sherman, Senior Fellow & Research Lead of Sanford’s Data Brokerage Project, testified as an expert witness before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. The hearing, titled "Who is Selling Your Data?", was prompted by Sanford's data broker research, and Chair Morgan Griffith (R-VA) cited it as a driving force behind the proceedings. The risks of private data sales were highlighted, urging increased transparency and efficacy for users, with Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) suggesting the creation of federal privacy laws to regulate personal data sales. Sherman's testimony addressed the abuses uncovered by Sanford's research, advocating for measures including restrictions on data sale to foreign governments, bans on health, location, and child data sale, and prevention of data brokers skirting laws through inference-based methods.
The bills were introduced as necessary to protect data privacy and security from foreign intrusion but have raised heated questions.
Caplan believes TikTok ban efforts have seemingly had more to do with geopolitical tensions than actual privacy concerns, and neither professor sees the bans as being easily enforceable or effective.
They do, however, note the bipartisanship support and a need for Americans to be more aware of the data they’re giving away when using their phones. Still, an outright ban of one app could, as Caplan says, be a slippery slope to others, including software citizens use to communicate with geographically distant loved ones. In a word, the issue is highly delicate.
And yet, even as the federal government debates a total U.S. ban, state governments have already started banning it for government employees. Sanford’s Ken Rogerson spoke to Bob Sullivan on his Debugger podcast about the reasons that states are concerned.
The aftermath of Elon Musk Twitter Purchase
Margaret Sullivan (in her first weekly column in The Guardian) wrote about the tumultuous tenure of Elon Musk as head of Twitter. Musk has recently expressed interest in hiring a new CEO, and Sullivan has been on several shortlists. Although she dismissed the idea as unlikely, Sullivan indulged in the hypothetical new job and detailed the steps she would take to save Twitter while protecting its millions of users.
Professor Bill Adair spoke with the publication Grid about what it means that Twitter will now permit political ads to show up uninvited on users’ feeds. The piece asserts the move is a financial response to Twitter losing advertiser with new CEO Elon Musk’s relaxation of content moderation and other platform changes. Adair thinks Twitter is already in such chaos that political ads won’t make it much worse, but notes that Musk’s lack of strategy for handling misinformation means the political ads that drop could get away with being comprised of false or misleading facts.
Sanford Students Compete in 2022 Cyber Cup
On Oct. 22 and 23, two classrooms at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy were transformed to briefing rooms at the National Security Council. Over 60 students from Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, the Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke School of Law, and the Pratt School of Engineering participated in the third annual Duke Cyber Cup.
Micah Schulman, a sophomore said, “I didn’t have a lot of hands-on policy experience going into the Cyber Cup. Working on a team to effectively analyze an ongoing cyber situation was completely new to me. However, through the Cyber Cup competition, I realized how much I enjoy analyzing cybersecurity incidents in this way. It was fast-paced, interesting and incredibly rewarding.”
18 teams of students presented their ideas to a team of judges from Palo Alto Networks, Trellix, Apple, Intel and Duke University who served as the fictional National Security Council staff tasked with advising the U.S. President in a hypothetical cyber attack scenario.
Teams approached the scenario differently, proposing creative and innovative solutions to the problem. The winning undergraduate team of Shayan Kothari, Alex McMillan and Micah Schulman and the winning graduate team of Suher Adi, Hayley Barton and Jeanine Liu each walked away with $2000 thanks to the support of Unit 42 by Palo Alto Networks.
John Oliver episode Cites Sanford Research
In an April 10, 2022 segment of "Last Week Tonight," host John Oliver discussed the issue of data brokers citing research from Sanford Fellow Justin Sherman. Data brokers are companies that collect and sell personal information about individuals, often without their knowledge or consent.
This information can range from demographic details like age, gender, and address to more sensitive information like purchasing habits, medical conditions, and financial history.
Oliver highlighted how this information is used by companies to target consumers and how it can also be used by unscrupulous actors for purposes like identity theft, fraud, and other malicious activities.
He also pointed out that despite the significant impact that data brokers have on privacy and security, they are largely unregulated, and consumers have limited ability to control how their information is used.
Tech-Focused Policy 360 Podcast Episodes
Policy 360, a Sanford podcast highlighting policy researchers and their work, recently tackled two of the most pressing issues in our always-connected world.
Student Voices on Tech Policy
Student Voices give Sanford undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to share their perspectives on all areas of public policy. These recent voices focused on the need for data privacy, particularly for vulnerable populations.