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Seny Kamara Joins Brown CS As Associate Professor

“Some people say privacy is dead,” says Seny Kamara, who joins Brown CS as Associate Professor this summer. “I don’t buy that at all.” The former Microsoft researcher, born in France and raised on three different continents, has long seen academia as his eventual destination. Excited by the people and the values he’s found at Brown, he’s looking forward to both the research and the teaching ahead: “When cryptography is applied right, it can contribute immensely to society. It’s an enabler for very powerful things if designed properly.”  

Like many members of the Brown CS community, Seny’s love for computing began early. He cites a not uncommon entry point into the field: the Nintendo Entertainment System. “My interest in computer science started when I was a kid,” he says, “playing video games on Nintendo with a friend in my building. His father had a 386, so we started playing games on that, but things broke down from time to time, and because we couldn’t play, we learned to fix it. The motive was just to have fun, but I got comfortable hacking with it. I remember the moment when I realized that it was something I could get a degree in: I couldn’t believe I could go to school and work with computers full-time.”

Seny studied computer science at Purdue and then John Hopkins University, earning first a Bachelor of Science, then a Master of Science in Engineering, then a Doctorate of Philosophy. His work with cryptography didn’t begin until graduate school, but his passion for security had started long before college: “I was really fascinated by the security mindset, that a machine was supposed to do something and people were getting it to do something it wasn’t supposed to do.”

We press him on this: was it fascinating from an engineering perspective or perhaps a systems perspective, as a problem to solve? It’s more than that, Seny explains, alluding to the worldview he gained from living in France, Senegal, Italy, and then New York City. “The machine itself was interesting to me,” he says, “but when you get older, your perspective broadens. As I was growing up, computers were becoming pervasive, and the stakes were becoming much higher. Everything is digital, and the implications for society are huge. I don’t think all my travels were necessarily formative for a career in CS or security, but I’ve always been interested in international relations, in diplomacy. Today, you have to have a global perspective for problems of security and surveillance and policy.”   

After a long career in research, including more than seven years at Microsoft Research, Seny isn’t surprised by this latest development in his career. He has spent  so much of his life on college campuses, he explains, finding them a natural setting for researchers. “And I always had a great relationship with Brown CS,” Seny says. “I’ve hired multiple Brown graduates as interns, and everyone I knew from Brown always loved it.”  

Specifically? “The values played a big part, the culture. Brown stands out as a place where both the administration and the students are socially and politically engaged. They care about the world and about other people more than just competition.”

Seny is just as specific about upcoming teaching at Brown CS, and provides an interesting insight into how his research area has contributed to the genesis of electronic commerce. “I’ll be teaching a cryptography class, and I’m really excited that it’s about applied cryptography, which gives it a bigger impact. Look at Bitcoin: cryptography can enable very powerful and interesting things. What made e-commerce possible? Public key cryptography.”

Seny pauses when asked about the current worldwide debate on privacy, security, and surveillance. “There are a lot of problems, so it’s hard to pin down one that’s worse than the others! We’re shifting more of our lives to the digital world. What security infrastructure is in place? We need a larger debate on privacy in the digital world. In the physical world, we have an expectation of privacy and we know how to navigate the physical world to achieve the level of privacy we want-- we can meet in person, pull the blinds, and close the door. But what we think of as private in the digital world, like an email or a text is not at all and most people do not understand this. We need to decide what kind of privacy infrastructure we want for the digital world and then build it.”

Faculty members with associated interests in security and cryptography (Timothy Edgar, Vasileios Kemerlis, Shriram Krishnamurthi, Anna Lysyanskaya, Bernardo Palazzi, John Savage, Roberto Tamassia) as well as students and staff and the entire Brown CS community are glad to have Seny’s voice contributing to that debate, and we’re eager to start building alongside him.