Graduate student soars to tech policy stardom
From serving as a consultant to law enforcement to collaborating with Firefox on a cookie-blocking feature, Jonathan Mayer J.D. ’12 Ph.D. ’16 has made a name for himself in recent years with regards to technology policy and online privacy issues.
Despite being recently named as one of Forbes Magazine’s “Top 30 Under 30,” however, Mayer framed the public plaudits as simply a way to ensure that his work continues to influence public debate well into the future, noting that even being considered for the Forbes nomination had been a surprising—if entirely positive—experience.
“It’s one of those things where you don’t really ask for it or expect it, but it’s really nice to get it,” he said.
A native of Chicago, Mayer earned his undergraduate degree in public policy from Princeton University in 2009 and came directly to Stanford with the intent of completing the first ever J.D./Ph.D. in computer science (CS).
“I wasn’t going to do law and policy lite or CS-lite—I was going full in on both,” he reflected. “I applied to both programs at Stanford, without really asking about it in advance or knowing if it was possible. I’d read something that suggested it was okay, but I intentionally avoided asking questions.”
Even while working towards his law degree, Mayer split time between Law School classes and CS research.
“Some days it [was] very challenging,” he said. “I’d be walking from corporate lectures to CS research. Thankfully the areas I was interested in were of interest to both law professors and the CS department. I was able to do the stuff I wanted, which happened to have law and CS together.”
His research in tech policy, an area that Mayer describes as “the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] for technology,” has led him to work on issues related to Google’s cookie-tracking policy online, phone metadata privacy and the NSA’s international tracking, among others. He framed his interest in those fields as reflective of not only personal curiosity but also a desire to educate the public about how their data is used.
In fact, Mayer began looking into cookie tracking at about the same time that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) began their investigation into Google. The FTC acknowledged looking at Mayer’s research throughout their investigation, which eventually resulted in a $22.5 million fine for the Silicon Valley giant.
Mayer framed the cookie-tracking issue as presenting significant implications for the general population.
“When you go to a website on your computer, a cookie is set, which is just a little bit of text, with a unique ID number, that can follow you to another website that you go to, so that someone could know that you were the same person who looked at both websites,” Mayer said. “Apple tries to prevent that cookie sending, but there’s a weird quirk in Safari where you could send the cookie anyways. Google took advantage of this quirk in Safari to ensure that the cookie got sent from the first website [so they could track your movements].”
Patrick Mutchler Ph.D. ’16, whose research interests involve mobile security, began working with Mayer this past summer on the phone metadata privacy research.
“[Mayer] is a unique researcher because having a J.D. with a Ph.D. gives him some expertise that few people have, even at Stanford,” Mutchler said. “He’s working on things that have an obvious direct influence on people, which is not something you see as a researcher. It’s harder to come up with things that have a direct influence right away.
For Mutchler, the most unexpected part about working with Mayer was the practice of publishing their preliminary results on Mayer’s blog, which is followed by various news media.
“It got picked up by the media and it was weird to see them not reporting the information correctly,” he said. “You could see how they could get it wrong, but it was still wrong, and that was hard.”
For Mayer, one of the hardest parts of trying to push back against technology giants like Google is seeing the limited impact of his information and research on policy debates.
“The person with the largest megaphone or greatest notoriety has the greatest sway, not the person with the best facts or correct understanding of technology or law—there’s no real way to correct that,” he said. “I think I’ve been fortunate to have an impact but I only have such a large megaphone.”
Mayer also expressed frustration with the media’s lack of nuance, an issue particularly pronounced in recent investigations into the National Security Agency’s information-gathering practices.
“Let’s suppose the NSA did follow the rules,” he said. “Did those rules make sense? No. I think that’s more relevant and a more persuasive argument, but it’s not always the best way to move the debate…Journalists get mad at me because they want me to [say] ‘screw the NSA,’ but I’m not going to say it—I disagree and talk about the things they’ve done wrong.”
For Mayer, the need to function as a pseudo-ACLU for technology issues is symbolized by the enormous asymmetric exchange of information in the tech industry.
“I’ve been involved in law policy and CS work because it brings clarity to the impact of certain practices,” he said. “People should know that the NSA phone policy, which looks at how closely connected phone calls are, claims to have no names involved, yet a quick study and search through Yelp and Google and Facebook showed that we could identify over 90 percent of the numbers we were looking at.”
“I don’t think an ordinary member of the public could be expecting to have that kind of intuition about it, so this space provides the essential information,” he added. “Who else is going to do it, but those in academia?”
Contact Josee at jsmith11 ‘at’ stanford ‘dot’ edu.
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