A Computational Security Blanket

Whenisn’t working on computer privacy and security, there’s a decent chance she’s busy making quilts. Some of those quilts have themes that are relevant to her work—and one was recognized with an Honorable Mention in the 2013 International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge. We asked Cranor—who just received notice of her promotion to full professor at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—about the connection between quilting and careers.

Q: Please tell us about your scientific self: background, professional interests, projects, and ambitions.

An important skill for academics is to learn to manage your time and, especially, to learn how to say “no.” Lorrie Faith Cranor

L.F.C.: I have a doctoral degree in engineering and policy and master’s degrees in computer science and in technology and human affairs, all from Washington University in St. Louis. My dissertation was on electronic voting. When I graduated in 1996 I joined the research staff at AT&T Labs Research. I spent most of the next 7 years doing privacy-related research. I got involved in a privacy standards project at W3C [the World Wide Web Consortium] and became the working group chair. While working on that project I realized that in order for this standard to be successful, we would need to have good user interfaces for exposing privacy concepts to end users. So I started focusing my research on usability issues in privacy and security. When I left AT&T in 2003 and joined the CMU faculty, I started a research lab focused on usable privacy and security. I currently have eight Ph.D. students working on lots of different projects. See the CyLab Usable Privacy and Security Laboratory Web page.

Work-life balance is very important to me, although I think my family would argue that I don’t do it as well as I should. But I try to set up my schedule to build in family time, and I say “no” to a lot of activities that require travel or meetings late in the day. Besides making time for my family, I also make time to exercise, practice yoga, quilt, and do other activities that I enjoy. I recently started a soccer club for women over 30 who want to learn how to play soccer. After failing miserably at playing soccer in elementary school, now I’m finally learning how to play and having a blast!

Q: Another thing a quilt implies is security—so it seems quite appropriate for your password theme. No doubt, the judges tuned in to that. Does this—the obviousness of password choices—relate to your scholarly research in any way?

L.F.C.: My research focuses on security and privacy, so in my sabbatical proposal I said I would use art to visualize privacy and security concepts. So it was obvious that I needed to make a quilt with the title “Security Blanket.” But it took me a while to figure out what they would look like. I decided to try to create a quilt related to the passwords research our group is doing. We have written several papers on the usability and security of passwords. See my blog post about this. I also made some quilts on privacy themes.

Q: Can you tell us something about how it was made?

Q: Apart from the obvious—relaxation, diversion—is there any connection between quilting and your career?

L.F.C.: There is actually a bit of engineering in quilt design. I’m always looking for techniques that will make it easier to construct a quilt or allow me to create a quilt that more closely resembles the vision I have for it. The advent of relatively inexpensive custom fabric printing opens up lots of possibilities.

For some of the other quilts I made during my sabbatical, I wrote a computer program to help me design my quilts.

Q: You’re an associate professor—at Carnegie Mellon that means you’re tenured, right? Were you tenured recently? How did that go?

L.F.C.: I came to CMU mid-career and had a nontraditional path through the tenure process. I received tenure in 2011 and just received the letter that I will be promoted to full professor this summer. I have appointments in two colleges (engineering and computer science), and my tenure case had to go through both colleges.

Q: Please pass along your best career advice.

L.F.C.: An important skill for academics is to learn to manage your time and, especially, to learn how to say “no.” The hard part is actually figuring out which things are important to spend your time on and which are not. Find mentors who can give you quick feedback when you are not sure whether something is important. And don’t overbook yourself. I’ve taken to blocking out several hours each week on my calendar for class preparation, reviewing research papers, and other tasks that require concentration. Otherwise I find that the only time I have to do these things is at night.

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