J#Femtechleaders

Elli Androulaki, PhD

Researcher at IBM Research

Zurich, Switzerland

@elli_androulaki  |  LinkedIn Profile

101 (9)When did you come to the conclusion that you wanted to be an engineer and what drove your interest in this field?

Engineering has always fascinated me. My father is an engineer, and I guess he inspired the engineering spirit in me. In school I’ve always enjoyed Math and Physics more than any other class. After getting a glimpse of computers at school, I decided to study Computer Engineering in the final grade of high school. Internet and the web were taking off at that time, and all these new technologies looked like endless opportunities in my eyes. Getting myself involved seemed like the natural thing to do!

You are originally from Athens and attended university there. What prompted you to study abroad for your post graduate studies in the U.S.?  What was this experience like?

I wanted to study abroad for both personal and professional reasons.

Professionally, I wanted to experience studying in a highly ranked university in the US, and specialize my skills in a competitive and challenging world-class environment. I wanted to learn from the best, to expand not only my educational horizons, but also my network and simply be where important things where happening.

At a personal and cultural level, I wanted to mingle with people from other cultures and spend time in a stimulating multi-cultural environment. There is hardly any place more appropriate for that than New York City! I quickly realized that this was a right decision as it enabled me to quickly grow mentally and mature, to realize what I wanted to do and figure out how to pursue it.

You’ve published multiple studies on the topic of digital identity and cybersecurity as far back as 2009 while studying at Columbia University. Who do you believe this topic has evolved since you first visited them?  Are we making progress?

Yes, the evolution of technology and the increasingly deep penetration of the Internet has changed a lot of things in the area of identity management and cyber-security.

Social networks, smart phones, tablets, and the apps running on them, have significantly contributed to individuals putting more and more records of their life online and (however useful) to some extent it cannot be trusted.

Systems and devices get hacked all the time, and users’ personal information is leaked.

Having users participate, using their identity in their transactions, thus puts their entire life at enormous security and privacy risks. Efforts in the research community have continued to flourish in this area, but, as usual, the implementation of research ideas in viable, practical systems has long been left behind. The good thing is that countries and institutions have started to realize the dangers and perils and are now trying harder to legally protect the privacy of individuals and set a legal framework around cybersecurity.

You also authored several studies on privacy and Bitcoin dating back to 2012.  What is your opinion on the current state of Bitcoin as a currency?

Bitcoin is a system that has introduced a breakthrough consensus algorithm that could run in permissionless systems, while resisting sybil attacks. To put it more simply, the breakthrough introduced by Bitcoin is the ability of a number of untrusted parties (e.g., Internet users around the world that do not know or trust one another) to reach consensus in a secure and provable way. Bitcoin enabled untrusted parties to engage in transactions that a) are guaranteed to be safe and secure, b) everyone knows they have taken place, and c) nobody can challenge their legitimacy (i.e.,that funds are not spent more than once).

People around the world originally liked the idea of using the Bitcoin network for two primary reasons. One is the privacy claimed by Bitcoin itself, i.e., the fact that user-identities were not attached to payments.

The other reason was connected to the fact that was no need for or dependency from banks or other centralized entities. Naturally the latter meant lower transaction fees.

In my opinion, these reasons alone cannot justify the use of Bitcoin anymore. Regarding privacy, there have been multiple academic papers pointing out that Bitcoin is actually pseudonymous and can leak a lot of information about the involved parties in transactions. In fact, unless the system is flooded with a number of fake transactions that would make the system unusable, leakage of information on the profile of transaction participants is hard to prevent.

At the same time, there are indications that despite the decentralized nature of the Bitcoin consensus algorithm, Bitcoin moves away from its original purpose, i.e., openness and decentralization of trust. The protocol itself, implemented by the Bitcoin client, is controlled by a handful of people. These developers are the ones, who, e.g., enforced their method on how to handle forks, and took important scalability decisions.

Similarly, most of the Bitcoin mining is now concentrated in a few mining pools. At the same time, the sensitivity of the information contained in Bitcoin wallets, as well as privacy and reliability requirements have urged the use of online wallet services, which effectively play a role similar to the one banks play today for fiat currency. To make matters worse, as opposed to actual banks, online wallet services had not been regulated till recently and have occasionally been proven fraudulent.

Having said that, the technology behind Bitcoin known as blockchain is an even more exciting opportunity. It’s a completely novel architecture for business–a foundation for building a new generation of transactional applications that establish trust and transparency while streamlining business processes. It has the potential to vastly reduce the cost and complexity of getting things done. Essentially, it could help bring to business processes the openness and hyper efficiency we have come to expect in the Internet Era.

Author’s note:  Elli’s multiple white paper’s on this and other topics can be accessed at IBM Research’s publication site.

Do you believe advancements in AI will create even more issues and gaps with consumer security and privacy?

Not sure whether there will be more or less issues, but there will be different issues.  As AI machines get involved in more and more aspects of our everyday life, they will be possessing more and more of our personal information. Therefore, building secure machines will be even more important which is why we need safeguards to protect us against security glitches. On the other hand, attacks based on what is called ‘social engineering’ will be less applicable to machines, and so some systems will become more secure. Nevertheless, one thing I can say for sure is that programming secure and privacy-preserving machines will become of utmost importance.

You are a researcher at one of the most recognized global tech firms globally. How do you balance this responsibility in your personal life?  How do you manage your ‘down time’?

Indeed, working at IBM Research is an incredible opportunity; the sheer number of possibilities to contribute and have impact can easily absorb you. To have a sustainable career, balancing work and personal time is key.

For me, family and friends play a most important role. Being around the people I love with helps me decompress from work, and fills me with energy and enjoyment. I find it is important to not regularly take home issues from work on the one hand, but on the other hand sometimes sharing my frustrations and sources of stress with friends helps me see the bigger picture and take more rational decisions.

In addition, keeping myself busy with hobbies helps substantially. Not only it is stress-relieving to go to the gym, dance (salsa mostly), and occasionally bicycling, but also I find my hobbies stimulate my brain and help me come up with better ideas and a strong appetite for research.

Who(m) do you believe has had the most influence with respect to your own career? 

My parents and family were the first ones to inspire me with curiosity around science and learning new things, and, importantly, they helped me take the first steps in learning how to study and improve my skills. They have always been extremely supportive of me continuing my studies abroad (even if that meant that I would spend time away from them), and always providing me with most solid advice. Prof. Steven Bellovin, my PhD supervisor at Columbia University, has clearly influenced my research career most, and helped me evolve to an academic researcher with not only solid technical background and skills, but also with work ethics.

Who do you consider to be strong women leaders in the FinTech space?

IBM’s own Chitra Dorai is certainly a role model and she is a strong supporter of the open blockchain technology known as Hyperledger.

What do you see as the 3 leading future trends for FinTech?

  • Blockchain technologies will be increasingly used to simplify, secure and automate multiple functions in the finance industry.
  • Analytics and cognitive technologies will be used to predict user behavior and manage risk more effectively.
  • Mobility; geographical borders will become less significant, and users will be able to more and more operations from any location.
  • Security and privacy.

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