TigerTalks in the City brings Princeton faculty to New York City
TigerTalks in the City brings Princeton faculty to New York City

TigerTalks in the City brings Princeton faculty to New York City

In May 2015, the Princeton Entrepreneurship Advisory Committee published a report detailing specific ways in which Princeton University might bolster Entrepreneurship the Princeton Way, defined as “the initiation of transformations through risk-taking actions and value-creating organizations.” Under the leadership of President Eisgruber and Provost Lee, the University has moved quickly to support this initiative, both on campus and beyond.

As one component of enabling Entrepreneurship the Princeton Way off campus, the Princeton Entrepreneurship Council (PEC) launched TigerTalks in the City, a quarterly series designed to bring entrepreneurial Princeton research to New York City. The topic of the inaugural panel discussion was “Big Data & Little Privacy?” and featured Jake Shapiro, Woodrow Wilson School; Nick Feamster, Computer Science; Prateek Mittal, Electrical Engineering and Matt Salganik, Sociology. The event took place on October 6 at the AppNexus headquarters in Midtown.

Brian O’Kelley ‘99, founder of AppNexus, kicked off the evening with a few remarks about his firsthand experience with the evolution of entrepreneurship at Princeton. “For 17 years, I’ve been waiting for Princeton to come to New York City and to make entrepreneurship a real focus. Somehow, all of these things are coming together.”


And coming together they are. Mung Chiang, Chairman of PEC, cited just a few examples of the initiatives Princeton is spearheading to support entrepreneurship. “We established the first-ever incubator in downtown Princeton, started the first-ever seed fund to support young alumni’s early stage startups and launched the Certificate Program in Entrepreneurship.”

Pablo Debenedetti, Dean for Research, shared more about the entrepreneurial advances that are happening on campus through government and University-funded research grants. “We’ve created Innovation Funds, which reward bold ideas to establish a culture of risk-taking,” Pablo said. “Our aim is to support research in which knowledge is advanced by invention.”


Princeton entrepreneurship is not just confined to campus; Chiang noted that beginning in 2016, the university is executing a New York City strategy of “Princeton presence without a physical presence,” with a suite of complementary programs that bring Princetonians to New York City, including eLab Demo Days, Princeton Startup Immersion Program (PSIP), Princeternship and OfficeHours. And as the panelist discussion demonstrated, entrepreneurial faculty research spans across the globe.

Chiang, the moderator, began the discussion optimistically, asking the panelists what they viewed as the best use case of big data. From tracking the spread of Ebola using cell phone records to understanding risk behaviors in populations at risk for HIV, the benefits of big data are apparent. Mittal mentioned Google’s recent advances in collecting and anonymizing data from the homepages of Google Chrome users, a method called differential privacy. The concern, as all of the panelists pointed out, is when this data falls into the wrong hands.

Shapiro drew an important distinction about the conceptualization of the entities who use big data. “It’s intuitive for us to think of government as by and large existing to serve the community. In many developing countries, however, the government exists to take from the community and transfer resources into the pockets of government officials and friends.” Shapiro went on to illustrate how data obtained from cellphone records about the wealth of communities could help or harm a population. “Using big data, benign governments could more effectively target aid, assistance and training programs; for a malign government, the data could be a way to target and stop cars to extract large bribes.”

Mittal added that in some political regimes, the very use of privacy technology can put citizens in harm’s way. “Even though a network provides privacy with respect to action, it may not hide the illegal use of technology in the first place.” Feamster illustrated the complexity of this problem. “It is difficult to reason about the risks versus the benefits of big data, because we often don’t know what the risks are or what the benefits could be.”

Where does the United States government fall on the big data-beneficence spectrum? Shapiro reassured the audience that in his interactions with government officials, he has found that they care deeply about developing systems that protect user privacy, even if it means sacrificing system performance.

The bad news, as Shapiro pointed out, is that corporations that monetize data share none of the federal government’s compunctions about selling personal information to outside entities. “These corporations are aggregating data in ways that are well beyond the scope of what’s regulated by the government and are dispersed well beyond the government’s jurisdiction,” Shapiro said. “So even if the government wanted to reign back data collection that’s already happened, in some ways it’s too late.”

Another threat to user privacy is the ubiquity of IoT (Internet of Things) devices, such as smartwatches and set-top boxes. Feamster observed that the majority of these devices are not encrypting traffic, which means they are not abiding by security and privacy best practices. And while computer scientists are working on technical solutions, not all of these solutions will realistically be implemented. “The average home user doesn’t want to configure a firewall,” Feamster said. “They just want everything to work.”

So how do we harness the power of big data while regulating its uses and protecting user privacy? The panelists offered different approaches to resolving this complex issue. Salganik observed, “Because technology is changing so rapidly, rule-based systems will lag behind the technology, so we need to take more of a principle-based approach.” Salganik offered four guiding principles to abide by in research ethics: respect for persons, beneficence, justice and respect for law and public interest.

While agreeing with the sentiment of Salganik’s four principles, Shapiro was pessimistic about its political economy, simply because it is easy for corporations with ill-intent to get around the law. Mittal offered a more technical approach. “We’ve been living with technology where privacy is a second class citizen. We need to move toward an era where we see increasing adoption of privacy technology.”

The diverse perspectives of the panel intimated a critical component of finding a solution to the big data and user privacy problem. “A very important part of identifying a solution is breadth of expertise,” Salganik noted. “[Questions about big data] are not going to be solved by a computer scientist or lawyers or police or experts alone; it needs everyone at the table.”

The next TigerTalks in the City will be at the Princeton Club of New York on Thursday, December 1. The panel discussion will explore the topic of “Smart Cities.” You can register for TigerTalks in the City at entrepreneurs.princeton.edu/tigertalks.



— Julie Clack
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Director or the plutonium refinement in Yonkers.