“It wouldn't hurt those shaping our future to be a little paranoid”
Unconventionally, it was a love of soccer that led Carmela Troncoso to a degree in telecommunications engineering. Today, the EPFL 2022 Best Teacher in Computer Science and Communication Systems is an international figure in data security and privacy.
Carmela Troncoso’s academic trajectory was shaped by her love of one sport in particular.“In order to keep playing club soccer after high school, I had two choices: either enroll at the local Universidade de Vigo [in Northwest Spain] or get up early every morning for classes in physical therapy, which was a career I was considering at the time.” Underwhelmed by the prospect of pre-dawn wake up calls, Troncoso opted for a Master’s degree in telecommunications engineering. Twenty years later, her impulsive decision has proven to be to EPFL students’ benefit: now an assistant professor, she has been selected for the 2022 Best Teacher in Computer Science and Communication Systems award.
Once in her Master’s program, Troncoso soon discovered another calling in addition to soccer – data security. “I was interested in the societal aspects of data protection. It’s a matter of directly protecting certain basic rights,” an issue she feels particularly strongly about. For her PhD thesis on design and analysis methods for privacy technologies, Troncoso enrolled at KU Leuven in Belgium – soccer cleats in tow. “For two years, I was a striker for the DVK Haacht first division team.”
Tree of knowledge
After Belgium, Troncoso returned home to Spain for several years, where she worked first as the Security and Privacy Technical Lead at the Galician Research and Development Center in Advanced Telecommunications (Gradiant), and then as a professor at the IMDEA Software Institute. In 2017, she moved to Switzerland for a research position at EPFL’s Security and Privacy Engineering Laboratory (SPRING Lab). In 2020, she garnered broad recognition for her work on the SwissCovid tracing app. Her professional experience has only reinforced her belief in the importance of data security.“In today’s day and age, so much of our interaction is electronic thatprotecting the digital sphere is equivalent to protecting our society.”
The question is what exactly we mean by data security. “The notion of security doesn’t exist in a vacuum – it’s always about protecting something from someone or something else.” And, according to Troncoso, that’s exactly what makes this subject so fun to teach. Each time she teaches a new group of students, she first shows them a short animated film of an apple tree surrounded by a fence that’s intended to keep out Minions, the little yellow overalled creatures who delight children and parents alike. “Suddenly, three Minions climb on top of one another and are able to steal the apples from the tree.” This unexpected turn“bothers the students”and gives them a taste of what they can expect from her class. Namely, that “two right answers can exist at the same time, provided the security argument holds up.”
Students in Troncoso’s class must also get used to anothersomewhat disconcerting truth: “when it comes to data protection, you’ve got to always operate from the worst-case scenario.” Naturally this could stoke some paranoia, she admits. “But we can’t lose sight of the fact that hypervigilance is warranted in our field. Cybercriminals don’t care about what’s legal or not, so they’re capable of anything.” What’s more, “Given the ever-growing importance of digital technology, my students will find themselves with a lot of power in their hands in the next few years. It wouldn’t hurt those shaping our future to be a little paranoid.”
An empathetic approach
Troncoso credits her best teacher award to her ability to adapt to students’ needs, especially during the pandemic when she overhauled her teaching methods in order to remain in close contact. “I try to be an empathetic teacher and really be on the same page as my students. I go to as many review sessionsas I can, and during exams I’m right there with them in the trenches,” she says.
Despite working non-stop on the Swiss National Covid-19 Science Task Force during the pandemic and recently welcoming a child, the former soccer champion shows no signs of slowing down now. “I want to help create an educational software program for both students and people outside of academia, like NGOs and businesses. It would let users alternate between being a cyberattacker and a defender.” Her busy schedule may have led her to hang up her cleats a few years ago, but it’s clear that Troncoso still has her eyes on the goal.