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The Academic Side of Privacy: A Summer Internship Experience

by Johanna Gunawan, Privacy Intern

Jill Bronfman | September 8, 2021

As an interdisciplinary PhD student in cybersecurity, I am lucky to research modern-day privacy problems from both technical and legal perspectives. Within this field, there are many ways to enact change -- in previous roles, I worked as a technical writer for security organizations; in another, I worked in compliance. After these experiences, I sought to learn from yet another angle, one with a more direct relationship with the audiences I wanted to help: consumers first and vendors next. 

Initially drawn to Common Sense Media’s mission of informing parents and educators, I was thrilled to find an opening within the Privacy Program team, a wonderful group of consumer advocate powerhouses spanning technical, legal, and educational experience. I worked with the team over the summer of 2021, fully remote, for approximately 15 hours per week. Every week involved the full team meeting, an additional 1:1 meeting to discuss my interests and work, and a variety of other events like client calls, organization-wide intern Lunch and Learns, and training sessions for conducting Privacy Evaluations for kids’ software and educational technologies. 

My time at Common Sense Media was short, but during my internship I was able to work on the following tasks: 

  • Writing articles for the Privacy blog, including posts on transparency as an important tool for decision making, dark patterns, and how to improve transparency.
  • Providing editorial support for the State of Kids’ Privacy 2021 Report, Privacy of Streaming Apps and Devices: Watching TV that Watches Us, and conference presentations/applications.
  • Drafting and editing conference submissions under tight deadlines. 
  • Consulting and commenting on new projects on the privacy of Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality devices.
  • Conducting basic and full evaluations for educational technologies.

One of my favorite aspects of working with the Privacy Program team was participating in daily, remote discussions over daily news. The privacy landscape changes daily both in the U.S. and globally, and these changes provide ample opportunity to reflect upon how our work fits into the broader sphere of consumer protections and advocacy, as well as to consider new avenues for future work. 

It has been extremely rewarding to work for a nonprofit that directly impacts how consumers, parents, and educators interact with the tools they use -- and additionally impacts how vendors improve transparency in their privacy policies and practices. 

Coming from the academic side of privacy, I’ve mostly worked in theory and empirical study. Examining, parsing, and summarizing a consumer-facing technology’s privacy elements and design is labor-intensive work by nature. The Common Sense Privacy Program’s wealth of expertise and the sheer number of hours poured into this effort is nothing short of inspiring and additionally incredibly useful for the privacy field writ large. Conducting my own evaluations provided insight into the process a parent or educator must follow in order to make the best decisions for their child or student, and was different from the process of scanning a privacy policy for specific research questions. These assessments highlight the need for more transparent, readable policies, and additionally better education for the public regarding the often confusing or vague privacy statements provided to them. It was eye-opening to see the diversity in vendors’ policies, and heartening to see vendors improve their policies as a direct result of an evaluation. This collaborative feedback loop between the Privacy Program and vendors illuminates a path towards improved privacy protections for children, or at least more transparency for better decision making. 

Reading and editing the State of Kids’ Privacy Report, as well as reading the 2019 version of the report, has also been a greatly rewarding experience. The report findings help consumers better understand the kids’ technology privacy landscape at scale and over time. Data is power in our new world, and can also be used to empower the very people whose data is often at risk for abuse. The Privacy Program’s work attempts to tilt the scales back towards fairness. I’ve loved helping to make the report accessible and readable, a practice that is also incredibly useful for communicating my consumer advocacy research.

I feel incredibly lucky to have worked with the team for this short stint. I’ve come away with many practical learnings that will impact the direction of my future research and involvement in the privacy community. I emphatically recommend this position for any individuals seeking diverse mentorship and a better, safer digital world for all.