DSI Grad Works to Enhance Internet Privacy

Molly Hanson
Molly Hanson.


Molly Hanson works as a Product Analyst at Ghostery, a software provider in Manhattan's Flatiron district that makes web browsing cleaner, faster and safer. Its main products–a browser extension and a mobile browser ‒ help users browse smarter by giving them control over ads and tracking technologies to speed up page loads, eliminate clutter and protect personal data. 

She started at Ghostery as a Data Analyst intern in June 2017, and continued working there part-time during her final semester at DSI. At the time, she was the 9th employee to join Ghostery, but it now has 15 full-time employees and is hiring three more. “So it’s been really positive to be part of a growing team,” says Hanson, a 2018 graduate from the master’s program at the Data Science Institute.  In this Q&A, Hanson talks about her work at Ghostery, her time at DSI, and her passion for helping people safeguard their private data.  

What data do you use for your job? 
Given that we’re in the internet privacy business, and our parent company Cliqz (a German anti-tracking browser with integrated quick search) is just as focused on privacy and security as we are, the detail of data that I work with is much more limited compared to let’s say my peers at Facebook, Spotify or Amazon. That being said, we do have a notable portion of users that opt-in to sharing analytics metrics with us, so part of my work includes analyzing user telemetry data (anonymized signals collected when users interact with our products) to measure KPIs, monitor usage of new features and dive into more ad-hoc data forensics.

What types of analytics projects do you work on?
I mainly analyze our telemetry data using the PySpark SQL module in Databricks. We also recently published a study titled “The Tracker Tax: the impact of third-party trackers on website speed in the United States,” which looked specifically at how the presence of trackers affects page performance.  Along with two of my colleagues, I helped design the study, analyze the data, and present the findings both graphically and qualitatively. The findings were quite remarkable, as we saw the average page load time with trackers was twice as slow compared to when trackers were blocked. 

Did DSI help you find your job?
While I did not use DSI to find my roles at Ghostery, Rachel Cohen, Assistant Director of Career Development & Student Services at DSI, was an amazing resource during the interview and contract negotiation stages of my career search.  Also, this summer Ghostery wanted another Product Analyst intern to build out our team more, so I connected with Rachel, who shared our posting with DSI students currently looking for summer work. It was great to be able to facilitate a dialogue between Ghostery and DSI, and to help a student find a summer internship. That DSI student, Valmik Patel (expected to graduate in December 2018) just started his internship with us last week and we’re happy to have him on board! 

Are you happy you earned a master's from DSI? 
My grandmother always says, “you can never be too educated,” and I fully agree with her. After I completed my undergraduate degree in Finance at McGill University in Montreal, I knew I wanted to go back to school eventually, but wasn’t quite sure for what.  I worked for a couple years in the ad-tech space, which is where I was introduced to the whole world of data that I had never before been exposed to in any capacity. I was always drawn to numbers and more analytical problems so data science seemed like a great fit.

What was the most important thing you learned at DSI?  
My masters from DSI has helped me in many ways, but I think most holistically it helped me uncover what kind of work I’m interested in for a career. Typically, when people hear data science they think machine learning, algorithms, artificial intelligence. But there is a reason why the DSI course, Exploratory Data Analysis and Visualization, is a requirement for the master’s degree. Data science is a broad field with interdisciplinary applications, so even though I’m not implementing algorithms for flashier applications of data science, I’m using skills I learned from DSI for more business and strategic applications of data science and analytics.

Did you have a favorite class?
My favorite course and professor during my time at Columbia was an elective, Modeling Social Data, with Jake Hofman (senior researcher at Microsoft and adjunct professor at Columbia). This class was the perfect mix of the applications of data-driven models for social data, the theory behind various data science methods, and guest lectures from professionals working in the field. The coursework was exciting, applicable and had such a real-world focus, so you could see the value in what you were learning and how it could be applied beyond the classroom.  I definitely use what I learned in this course for my work at Ghostery.

Any other highlights of DSI?
One of the things I found that was great about DSI was the diverse educational backgrounds of the students. So while I had experience in statistics from my studies in Finance, the computer science and programming side was completely new to me, but this was the reverse for some of my peers. 

Are you interested in using data science for good ‒ using it to help solve societal problems?
I definitely think it’s important to use data and technology for good, but there will always be bad actors that take advantage of their power and mass reach. Lots of people I’ve spoken to about internet privacy say they “don’t have anything to hide” or “they already know everything about me,” but I don’t think people truly grasp how much these tech giants truly know about them, and how they use these insights to influence behavior. There is clearly a lack of knowledge when it comes to internet privacy, but with each new data breach and scandal, the public is slowly becoming more aware that there is an issue with how the internet is putting people’s private information at risk. Part of my work at Ghostery includes educating the public about internet privacy, and how simple things like installing a tracker-blocker can not only clean up your browsing experience by eliminating ads, but also save you time by speeding up your page loads and protecting your privacy by restricting PII (personally identifiable information) from being collected.  

You’re working in the forefront of data privacy at a time when it has become a major societal concern. Is that exciting? 
Yes, totally. Given the recent Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, it’s a particularly relevant and exciting time to be working at a company like Ghostery. The public is starting to question how personal data is collected, used and stored. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in Europe is a great first step, but there’s still a long way to go. 

--By Robert Florida

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