Spreading the Word about Cryptography and Data Privacy – My Experience at TED@IBM

As we gear up for TED@IBM 2016 slated for November 15th, we look back at the experience of one of last year’s guest speakers –Maria Dubovitskaya, a Security and Privacy Researcher at IBM Switzerland, shares the importance of keeping personal data private, how this is done, and her personal insights from her experience as a speaker at TED@IBM.

 “Cryptography is perhaps alone in its promise to give us more privacy rather than less.”
~ Whitfield Diffie

Hours of rehearsals, dozens of speech revisions, one last minute dress purchase – and then it started.

maria-ted-001As the glare of the stage contrasted with the darkness of the audience space, I was waiting in the twilight backstage decorated with the pictures of different dancers. Looking at them took me back to my childhood dance concerts and revived the forgotten backstage anticipation feeling. But today it is not a dancing performance – it’s a TED@IBM talk.  And, finally, it’s my turn and I am about to stand on the famous red circle.

“Hundred fifty dollars”. My voice is shaking a bit. It’s hard to stay calm when six cameras are looking at you and your talk is broadcasted live. But the audience in the room is so welcoming, supportive, and warm, and very soon I feel relaxed.

“Hundred fifty dollars”. This is the price of someone’s personal data 10 years ago on the black market. Now, it’s less than $1, because we share our personal information more than ever before.

This is why I wanted to do this talk – to tell everyone that revealing our personal data is indeed a big issue that many of us underestimate. And even if people realize and admit it, many still are not aware of it, or do not use different technologies to control the amount of data we reveal about ourselves.

Instead of showing an entire passport, driver’s license, or other credentials, we can disclose only what is absolutely necessary in every case, e.g. the fact that we are older than a certain age, have a valid status, or a right to do something. The less personal data is out there, the lower the risk of identity theft and the loss of privacy.

These privacy-preserving technologies are the results of work of many brilliant researchers and software engineers.  They are built from different cryptographic tools that can do really magic things. One example is zero-knowledge proofs, which allow you to prove that you know something without revealing it. This is what excites me a lot about crypto and that’s why I joined IBM Research to work with people that make these magical things real and useful.

But giving a TED talk is not only an honor, it’s a lot of work! You may ask yourself, “How hard can it be to give a 10 min talk about something that you work on for years?” Trust me, it’s not easy.

Maria 2.jpg

As for everything that looks really easy on stage – a good talk requires a lot of preparation. I was very lucky to work with a team of true professionals that can help you with almost everything: from polishing your script and slides and rehearsing the text to doing make up and mike you for the stage.

Here are a few lessons that I learned from my TED@IBM experience:

  1. Script: It’s easy to see if the script is really good, but it’s hard to write the one you like. The main take-away message should be short and clear. A few naturally-sounding jokes are a must. Simple and/or personal examples that people can relate to will help a lot. And don’t forget to fact-check!
  2. Slides: The simpler the better. They should not distract the audience from you and your speech, but rather support it and maybe make people smile (when appropriate). Use black slides if you talk about things that are not supported by the slides.
  3. Performance: When I give scientific talks I never have a script – maybe a few points in mind. I think then I sound more natural and less boring than when I learn my speech by heart. But this is not true for the TED talk. Unless you talk on stage every day – those cameras will stress you. Like for a dance – one has to have the choreography hardcoded “in the body” and then enjoy the performance and bring emotions to it. Same for the talk. If you know your script so well that you do not need to think about the right words to say next, then you can take it to the next level: share your emotions and attitude and engage with the audience. The only way to achieve that is to practice in different settings and in front of different people. Practice not only talking but also how you stand, look, walk, and use your hands. And try to smile as much as possible – it puts the audience at ease.

In the end it was all worth it. I think TED talks help to create better awareness for the problems, spark a lot of interest, and bring the opportunities for collaboration and future work. We continue working on privacy-preserving technologies. Our goal now is to bring them not only to the end users and service providers, but also to the enterprises. Blockchain is a very good use case here: strong privacy-preserving authentication is crucial for executing transactions on a blockchain.

Tim Urban in his TED talk said: “It’s always been a dream of mine to have done a TED talk in the past!” On the one hand, I must say I can relate to this phrase very well considering the amount of effort and nerves spent. On the other hand, it was such a wonderful experience meeting and working with so many great people, so if I ever had a chance to do it again, I would be happy to step on the red circle one more time.

At a time when our personal information is at risk every day, cryptographer Dr. Maria Dubovitskaya is part of a team which has designed a system that shares only what’s absolutely necessary while closely guarding the rest.

#TEDatIBM 2016 is coming up on November 15. Check out this year’s speaker lineup and find out how to register for the live stream at http://ibm.biz/TEDatIBM16

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