Pardis Emami-Naeini: Dedicated to the Human Aspect of Privacy and Security

By Glenn McDonald

Duke Computer Science assistant professor Pardis Emami-Naeini has a straightforward mission in her professional life – straightforward but not easy. She’s dedicated her career to making meaningful improvements in privacy and security for everyday computer users. That is to say, for pretty much everyone on the planet.

“My research area is at the intersection of human computer interaction and security and privacy,” Emami-Naeini says. “I want to help people protect themselves when they interact with emerging technologies.”

Because such interaction is ubiquitous in the 21st century, it’s a broad mandate. Security and privacy are perennial concerns with smart phones and communication systems, but also with nascent technologies like virtual reality and ambitious smart city initiatives.

The challenge requires an understanding of how people behave, Emami-Naeini says: “If you want to improve something related to technology, you need to understand why people are doing things.”

Emami-Naeini grew up in Tehran and earned her bachelor’s degree in Computer Engineering from Sharif University of Technology. Her experience with the current Iranian government helped to spark her interest in defending people’s rights. In Iran, Emami-Naeini says, cameras with advanced facial recognition software are now commonplace, and people just assume that their phone calls are being monitored and recorded.

“When I was going to university – and even high school and middle school – we all had this idea of privacy, what it means to be protected; for others to respect your boundaries,” she says. “But over and over such boundaries are being violated in Iran, especially for female students or for female-presenting persons in Iran.”

Her dedication deepened when she came to the United States to continue her studies. Emami-Naeini earned her M.Sc. and Ph.D. at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and did postgraduate work at the University of Washington in Seattle. America has its own problems with security and privacy issues, but for Emami-Naeini, the shift in perspective helped her appreciate the critical role of research in informing public policy.

“I started to think a lot more about privacy when I moved here,” she says, “If people in my country can better understand the importance of these issues, then they will want their data to be protected, too.”

Emami-Naeini is particularly interested in what she calls “human-based” research into privacy and security. She hopes to address the perils that pop up for all kinds of people doing everyday things in the digital age. As such, her research is necessarily interdisciplinary.

“It’s one of the reasons I wanted to come to Duke,” she says. “We have all these departments here that are actually, physically close to one another – medicine, the law school, engineering, the School of Public Policy.”

Emami-Naeini is a believer in the old-school university concept that proximity can help facilitate effective cross pollination of ideas. “These other schools are touching on the topics that I'm interested in, and I've worked on,” Emami-Naeini says. “In my interviews, everyone was very encouraging about interdisciplinary research. For me, that’s really important.”

Emami-Naeini can likely count on enthusiasm from her students, too. As an engaged educator, she’s committed to helping young researchers find their own groove in the fast-changing world of computer science. “Oh, I love mentorship, and teaching in general,” she says. “I'm looking forward to conveying what I know and helping students do this research.”

As a kind of happy side effect, students help to keep Emami-Naeini on her toes, too. “Something I love about teaching is that, when I prepare for a class, I’m actually reading and studying myself,” she says. “We always want to make sure the students are getting the most up-to-date information, and that means I have to update my own knowledge on these topics. As I’m teaching, I’m learning.”

As to her new environs out of class, Emami-Naeini finds herself enjoying the gentler vibe of the Duke campus and the Triangle area, generally. “Previously, I was living in downtown Seattle, which was amazing, but I was also functioning under a very high level of stress,” she says with a laugh. “Things here are much calmer, more steady, and a lot more green than in Seattle.”

Emami-Naeini is learning about the greenery the fun way – she’s a dedicated runner in her off-hours. “I did a marathon last year in Seattle and I'm planning to do a marathon here at some point,” she says. “I try to run every day, if I can.”

Meanwhile, Emami-Naeini says she’s genuinely energized by the new opportunities at Duke. In the long term, she looks forward to mapping new territories at the intersection of her research priorities: people, technologies, and policies.

“You can’t improve technologies without looking into the people aspect of it all,” she says. “I hope to help inform the design of these technologies, and the policies regulating them. I hope to keep people better protected.”