MIT lands $15 million to shape cybersecurity laws for self-driving cars and delivery drones

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The Hewlett Foundation, the billion-dollar philanthropic organization set up by one of HP’s founders, is pledging $15 million towards a cybersecurity initiative at MIT that will bridge the worlds of policy and future technology.

The new Cybersecurity Policy Initiative will be housed at CSAIL, the institute’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. The group will be led by Daniel Weitzner, a CSAIL research scientist who took a break from MIT to serve in President Obama’s administration as deputy chief technology officer in 2011 and 2012.

“What the Hewlett Foundation has enabled us to do is look at the very specific question: What kind of laws and public policy environment should we create in order to make these [technologies] more trustworthy?” Weitzner said.

The plan is to cement a collaboration between engineers, political scientists, and management experts from departments around campus.

The Hewlett Foundation has apportioned a total of $65 million towards cybersecurity policy research; Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley are the other recipients announced today.

MIT CPI already has some thorny targets in its sights. Among them is data collection and storage, an issue that’s received heightened scrutiny after Edward Snowden leaked the National Security Agency’s surveillance practices, but also because of a string of sizable data breaches at retailers like Target and Sony.

Weitzner agreed that the NSA leaks and subsequent media storm are a symptom of a vacuum in public dialogue as well as policy thinking. He said he hopes to encourage conversations “so we didn’t have to have a national cataclysm” to engage on these topics.

Personal health data security is another item on the checklist, a growing security target as activity trackers and health apps proliferate, and patient data is transferred from within hospital networks to smartphones.

Also on the docket are questions surrounding the release of autonomous robots, including drones and self-driving cars. Lawmakers in Washington, D.C., have been debating small drone regulation in the last year, and questions often gravitate to the future abilities of these nascent technologies. (Just today, the National Transportation Safety Board has ruled that drone operators are beholden to regulation by the Federal Aviation Administration, a decision that will affect small and large operators of the crafts.)

Meanwhile, entrepreneurs who are already launching companies to sell futuristic flying robots warn that irresponsible or slow regulation can do lasting damage to US tech companies in this space by blunting their competitive edge. An open line between technologists and policymakers could speed up the process.

Up for discussion will be questions like: Who is liable if a self-driving car runs over my foot? Another one: What is the minimum safety standards that Google and Amazon drones will need before they are dropping packages in your backyard?

CPI will also be clearing the weeds around the international boundaries of security regulation, a murky zone that big tech companies like Microsoft have insisted need attention.

Image via Flickr user Justin Jensen 

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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