Grad student has already made a mark in consumer privacy, U.S. spying

Jonathan Mayer
The research of Jonathan Mayer, a Stanford University graduate student, has been cited by a presidential task force on National Security Agency operations.
(Peter Stember)

The gig: Jonathan Mayer is not a typical Stanford University graduate student. Already, at age 27, Mayer is an expert on consumer privacy and government surveillance. His research has been cited by a presidential task force on National Security Agency operations. He’s also taken on advertisers who track consumer movements online. Mayer still hasn’t completed his doctorate program, but he’s been summoned to provide briefings to high-level government officials. “It’s been kind of remarkable,” he said. “Because there aren’t other good sources for this information, I guess a grad student is it.”

The data: From his computer science lab in Palo Alto, Mayer has shredded the official spin on government and consumer surveillance. His research showed that the NSA’s bulk collection of telephone metadata is far more invasive than officials let on. He and a research partner found that the seemingly bare-bones data could be used to show with some certainty callers’ religious affiliations, medical conditions and, in one case, a woman seeking an abortion. Before that, Mayer caught four advertising companies, including Google, flouting a Web browser’s privacy feature by installing trackable cookies. He posts his revelations on his blog, a must-read for journalists, activists and policymakers.

His start: Mayer had planned to major in the classics at Princeton, but he ended up trying a computer science course his freshman year. One of his first assignments: writing a computer hack. “It was one of those moments when you’re like, this is something you can do as a career?” From that point on, Mayer stayed on the dual-discipline route, studying public policy and computer science as an undergrad, then simultaneously becoming a lawyer while working toward a doctorate in computer science at Stanford. Planting a foot in both worlds, Mayer said, positioned him to make the most impact.

Juggling: As Mayer gained a following, making it to class was sometimes a challenge. In law school, he had to excuse himself from lectures more than once to field calls from reporters. His most surreal moment came when he had to ask the faculty for a week off so he could give a presentation on online privacy at a European Union meeting. “They were actually really understanding,” Mayer recalled.


Learning from mistakes: One of Mayer’s biggest splashes came when he helped determine that consumers were being tracked online even when they cleared their cookies. Companies were using a Web user’s “fingerprint” — a series of characteristics such as screen resolution, which software plug-ins are installed, preferred fonts and more. On their own, those characteristics aren’t unique, but as a series they can identify a single user. The solution he and others came up with was less of a technical block to stop that kind of tracking and more of a signpost warning websites not to track. But companies are ignoring that warning, which taught Mayer a valuable lesson: “We focused on the short term of how to get it widely adopted, not the long-term strength of it.”

Words of wisdom: Mayer sees two routes for standing out in the debate on privacy. The first, and more effective option, is getting the technical know-how to produce bulletproof research that commands respect from people on both sides of the issue. “That gets results,” Mayer says. The second route is “going firebrand” — making extreme allegations about corporate and governmental spying without the facts that back them up. For people who lack a technical understanding, that’s a way to get attention, Mayer has found. “It’s a crass analysis. I wish it weren’t so.”

Middle path: Though Mayer’s work has caused headaches for the country’s spies, he doesn’t consider them his enemy. He rejects the notion that a well-resourced foreign intelligence apparatus is undemocratic. In fact, he seriously considered becoming a spook himself. That stance has gotten him grief from privacy activists who figured he’d be a brother-in-arms. Mayer thinks their extreme stance can be counterproductive: “Washington is not about to abolish the NSA and CIA.”

Staying true: Mayer now lives in San Francisco’s hip Mission District, but his culinary tastes have remained true to his native Chicago. He likes celery salt on his dogs, and he’s mourning the imminent closure of the Windy City’s legendary “encased sausage emporium” – Hot Doug’s.


Twitter: @RobertFaturechi

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