Feb 24 20

Fellows

Michael Pasacrita

The CR Digital Lab offers paid, non-resident fellowships to study the effects of connected products and services. 

Fellows will undertake research to increase transparency and advance consumers’ interests in the marketplace—devising new testing frameworks, tools, and procedures to evaluate values such as privacy, security, and fairness.

Fellows will have the opportunity to collaborate with a diverse community of technologists, leverage CR’s physical labs and testing infrastructure, and communicate findings to manufacturers, policymakers, and the public.

Deadline: April 15th, 2020

Frequently Asked Questions
Why is CR Offering Fellowships?

Consumer Reports is an independent nonprofit organization that operates the world’s largest consumer educational and product testing center. Today, we are building tools and methods to better evaluate and report on connected products and services—examining everything from the behavior of connected appliances to the data practices of major internet platforms. Through this fellowship program, we seek to support new work in the field, and develop tooling and infrastructure to power ongoing public interest research.

How does the fellowship work?

The fellowship is a 10 month collaboration. Each fellow’s time commitment will be based on the fellow’s project idea and project plan. We offer a generous stipend, project support, and a travel budget. Research universities are encouraged to consider nominating fellows.

What is the expectation for fellows?

Fellows will attend an onboarding meeting in New York, participate in monthly calls with the fellowship cohort, and provide regular updates on their research progress. Fellows can work from anywhere. They will have the opportunity to collaborate with technologists and technicians who are part of the Digital Lab, leverage CR’s physical labs and testing infrastructure, and tap into the collective intelligence of our growing community of public interest technologists. In addition to advancing original research, we’re hoping that fellows will help innovate tools, methodologies and systems that can be taken up by future code maintainers and lab technicians at CR and other testing organizations.

Who can apply?

Anyone interested in public interest technology research is welcome to apply. The fellowship may be of interest to engineers, computer scientists, information security professionals, independent researchers, academics, social scientists, and others. There is no specific educational or experience prerequisite required for the fellowship. We expect that some fellowships will be awarded to outstanding masters graduates, PhDs, post-docs, and established researchers or professors. We also welcome applications from independent technologists and professionals based within for-profit commercial organizations, though these applicants must undergo a conflict-of-interest review.

Do I need to have a project idea?

We invite prospective fellows to propose projects that align with a set of broad methodological and infrastructural challenges around the evaluation of consumer privacy, data security, and other emerging consumer technology issues. We award fellowships to people, not ideas—but applicants with a well-articulated project proposal will be more competitive. For interested applicants who don’t have a specific project proposal, we can help scope a research collaboration based on the applicant’s interests and experience.

How specific does a project idea need to be?

We welcome project proposals in any format, but offer some general guidelines. First, check out the Digital Standard (http://thedigitalstandard.org) to get a sense of the values we think should be reflected in connected products and services. We recommend framing your proposed project in terms of alignment with specific criteria, indicators, or procedures laid out in the Digital Standard. A good project proposal will include a problem statement or research question and a rough workplan, and will explain how resulting knowledge or findings might advance the public interest. An especially strong proposal might outline anticipated open source code contributions. By opening up our labs and creatively partnering with public interest technology researchers, we hope to better educate the public, raise companies’ standards, and ultimately empower consumers with better products and services. We are therefore particularly interested in applicants who understand how to leverage their proposed projects to drive change at a systems or policy level.

Do I own my work?

Yes! We encourage collaboration with Consumer Reports researchers and reporters, but you’ll own the work you do as part of your fellowship, and can work with the Digital Lab community to determine the best disclosure strategy for any original findings. However, we’re looking for prospective fellows who share our desire to build durable tooling and infrastructure to enable ongoing consumer product testing. We therefore ask fellows to make new test procedures, tools, and other code they develop as part of their fellowship available through an open source license—so CR and others in the public interest tech ecosystem can benefit from a growing set of shared resources.

What kinds of research questions might be in scope?

IoT: Connected appliances collect, manipulate, and share data to perform their stated functions. But the terms of service under which these activities take place are very broad and permissive. What data is actually being collected? Is it being used only for the intended purpose? What other business relationships are being established? Are the products secure against potential intrusion? Are the manufacturers pursuing industry-leading development practices? Are they abiding by emerging privacy standards?

Cars: With the advent of advanced telemetrics, various levels of autonomous driving, and roadside assistance programs, cars and trucks are becoming data platforms. However, most consumers view their vehicles as private spaces and physical goods, rather than as nodes in a larger data network. What data collection is happening while you are driving your car? Is it being sold to other companies, like your insurance provider or employer? What type of coordination is occurring with various forms of law enforcement? How much autonomy, agency, and control are being surrendered by consumers?

Data Brokers: Huge amounts of personal data is being collected, aggregated, and sold by data brokers. This activity is often disclosed and permitted by privacy policies and terms of service, but remains largely invisible to consumers and outside the realm of inspection and regulation by authorities. What type of tactics—disclosed, intentionally hidden, or illicit—are being used by data brokers to collect consumer data? What types of data are most valuable? Why? How does the market work? What are the emerging trends in the industry? What new, potential threats are emerging to consumer privacy and security?

What kinds of research activities does the fellowship encourage?

Fellows’ activities will vary depending on their interests and research questions. Here’s a partial list of research activities that might be in scope: building tools to enable broad identification, monitoring, decryption, and inspection of network traffic and endpoints; ecosystem mapping of manufacturers, advertisers, retailers, software publishers, and software developers; analysis, monitoring, and tracking of legal policies and standards; testing hypotheses about product behavior using static and dynamic analysis; negotiating testbeds or legal permissions to audit code or databases; user studies to understand the effects of obfuscation, behavioral manipulation, or dark patterns…if you are interested in this fellowship, you’ve probably got a few ideas—we want to hear from you!

How will applications be reviewed?

We anticipate awarding three fellowships in spring 2020. CR staff and advisors will review the applications and evaluate for alignment with CR’s mission and commitment to evidence-based testing for the public interest. Semi-finalists will be invited for interviews; finalists will work with CR to further articulate the scope of collaboration and identify any additional support needed.

If you can’t find the answer to your question here, you can reach out to digitallab@cr.consumer.org.

Support

The fellowship is made possible through the generous support of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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