A Computational Security Blanket

Visualization 2013

When Lorrie Faith Cranor isn't working on computer privacy and security, there's a decent chance she's busy making quilts. Some of those quilts have themes that are relevant to her work—and one was recognized with an Honorable Mention in the 2013 International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge. We asked Cranor—who just received notice of her promotion to full professor at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—about the connection between quilting and careers.

Q: Please tell us about your scientific self: background, professional interests, projects, and ambitions.

An important skill for academics is to learn to manage your time and, especially, to learn how to say "no." Lorrie Faith Cranor

L.F.C.: I have a doctoral degree in engineering and policy and master's degrees in computer science and in technology and human affairs, all from Washington University in St. Louis. My dissertation was on electronic voting. When I graduated in 1996 I joined the research staff at AT&T Labs Research. I spent most of the next 7 years doing privacy-related research. I got involved in a privacy standards project at W3C [the World Wide Web Consortium] and became the working group chair. While working on that project I realized that in order for this standard to be successful, we would need to have good user interfaces for exposing privacy concepts to end users. So I started focusing my research on usability issues in privacy and security. When I left AT&T in 2003 and joined the CMU faculty, I started a research lab focused on usable privacy and security. I currently have eight Ph.D. students working on lots of different projects. See the CyLab Usable Privacy and Security Laboratory Web page.

2013 Visualization Challenge

The International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge honors the long tradition of using illustration to communicate the complexities of science, engineering, and technology to students and the public. The winners are featured in this wee

The International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge honors the long tradition of using illustration to communicate the complexities of science, engineering, and technology to students and the public. The winners are featured in this week's Visualization Challenge special issue.

Q: Your Visualization Challenge entry, which won an Honorable Mention, is a quilt. Quilting is a powerful metaphor; it just screams work–life balance. Setting aside the particular theme of this quilt, can you tell us something about your relationship to quilting, and—more broadly—about balancing life and work?

L.F.C.: Yes, quilting is an activity that helps give me balance. I taught myself to quilt in grad school, because I needed to do something that would give me some immediate gratification when I was frustrated with my research. I minored in fine arts as an undergrad and I've always enjoyed art. So from the beginning I created my own quilt designs and focused on art quilts, designed to be hung on a wall. I love color, I love designing, and I love fabric. I have a sewing room now with a huge "library" of fabric. Just sitting there and imagining ways to combine fabrics is relaxing. And quilting is very tactile; I love using my hands to create.

Over the years, I've attended some quilt workshops and improved my technique. But now I have three kids and don't have a whole lot of time for quilting. Last year I was on sabbatical, and I decided to spend my sabbatical at the art school at Carnegie Mellon. I spent most of my time creating quilts. It was a great experience, very inspiring and restorative. I also had more time for my family and to get involved with my kids' schools. I started a parent-teacher organization (PTO) at my son's school and became PTO president. I also taught a sewing class to middle school kids at his school; it was mostly an exercise in how to teach kids not to hurt themselves with sharp, pointy objects, but it was fun. And I also started a regular exercise program for myself in 2013, and for the first time ever I exercised an average of 5 days per week and also ran several 5K races.

Work-life balance is very important to me, although I think my family would argue that I don't do it as well as I should. But I try to set up my schedule to build in family time, and I say "no" to a lot of activities that require travel or meetings late in the day. Besides making time for my family, I also make time to exercise, practice yoga, quilt, and do other activities that I enjoy. I recently started a soccer club for women over 30 who want to learn how to play soccer. After failing miserably at playing soccer in elementary school, now I'm finally learning how to play and having a blast!

Q: Another thing a quilt implies is security—so it seems quite appropriate for your password theme. No doubt, the judges tuned in to that. Does this—the obviousness of password choices—relate to your scholarly research in any way?

L.F.C.: My research focuses on security and privacy, so in my sabbatical proposal I said I would use art to visualize privacy and security concepts. So it was obvious that I needed to make a quilt with the title "Security Blanket." But it took me a while to figure out what they would look like. I decided to try to create a quilt related to the passwords research our group is doing. We have written several papers on the usability and security of passwords. See my blog post about this. I also made some quilts on privacy themes.

Q: Can you tell us something about how it was made?

L.F.C.: Usually my quilts involve cutting out and sewing together lots of little pieces of fabric. However, I took a very different approach to make this quilt because cutting out all those letters was not going to be feasible. The work in this quilt was in the design. I designed the whole quilt, first using a word cloud generator, and then by making lots of adjustments in Adobe Illustrator. I had the entire quilt top printed as one piece of fabric at spoonflower.com. I even had light quilting lines printed on the fabric so I could see where to quilt it. Assembling the quilt was relatively easy; it is just a front, a back, and some batting (the warm fuzzy stuff in a quilt) in between. I quilted it by machine.

Lorrie Faith Cranor

Lorrie Faith Cranor

Courtesy of Lorrie Cranor

Courtesy of Lorrie Cranor
Lorrie Cranor (Click the image to enlarge)

Q: Apart from the obvious—relaxation, diversion—is there any connection between quilting and your career?

L.F.C.: There is actually a bit of engineering in quilt design. I'm always looking for techniques that will make it easier to construct a quilt or allow me to create a quilt that more closely resembles the vision I have for it. The advent of relatively inexpensive custom fabric printing opens up lots of possibilities.

For some of the other quilts I made during my sabbatical, I wrote a computer program to help me design my quilts.

Q: You're an associate professor—at Carnegie Mellon that means you're tenured, right? Were you tenured recently? How did that go?

L.F.C.: I came to CMU mid-career and had a nontraditional path through the tenure process. I received tenure in 2011 and just received the letter that I will be promoted to full professor this summer. I have appointments in two colleges (engineering and computer science), and my tenure case had to go through both colleges.

Q: Please pass along your best career advice.

L.F.C.: An important skill for academics is to learn to manage your time and, especially, to learn how to say "no." The hard part is actually figuring out which things are important to spend your time on and which are not. Find mentors who can give you quick feedback when you are not sure whether something is important. And don't overbook yourself. I've taken to blocking out several hours each week on my calendar for class preparation, reviewing research papers, and other tasks that require concentration. Otherwise I find that the only time I have to do these things is at night.

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