Janne Lindqvist: You can’t help if you stay in the ivory tower

This sociable professor of computer science knows how to forge his own path and trusts his instinctive curiosity towards different research topics.
Janne Lindqvist
'Research can be done in a really practical way: picking out the problems of real life and solving them with the help of science. ' Photo: Kalle Kataila / Aalto University

I'm interested in the science of security, the science about security engineering. Security engineering is a very popular subject, and bold claims about security are made far too easily. For example, e-mail encryption methods sometimes have such major shortcomings that it would be better to talk of slightly less insecure options rather than secure ones.

My group and I have studied whether top-tier publications about authentication systems, such as passwords and facial recognition, are comparable. The answer is no – there are no common practices in the performance reporting, and as such the results are not often comparable.

Another interesting work we did was about usage-based car insurance, which is available in the United States and some other countries. Many of the companies monitor driver behaviour using GPS technology. However, some companies claim that their equipment measures only speed and, therefore, they do not know where the driver has been during the day. We showed that, based on the speed and a starting location, the companies could work out the movements of their customers – in other words, the claims of better privacy were unfounded.

How did you become a research scientist?

In the beginning of my Master’s studies, I thought I'd become the best programmer in the world. I worked in companies in the field and we also founded a company, but just programming turned out not to be my thing.

When I then started working as a teaching assistant in what was then still the Helsinki University of Technology, I realised that I could really help students. I found it hugely satisfying – with my experience, I could actually be useful to others. I also realised that research can be done in a really practical way: picking out the problems of real life and solving them with the help of science.

After my doctoral dissertation, I wanted to do something really different, so I went to work as a postdoctoral researcher at Carnegie Mellon University. Because I wanted to do more human-centered research, I focused on human-computer interaction – which I didn't know anything about. As a research scientist, I have never wanted to look at things from just one angle or just the particular perspective of my own field.

What have been the highlights of your career?

There have been many, and they have been very varied. Top-tier publications and progress along my career path as a professor, both in the United States and here at Aalto, have of course been very significant things. One unquestionable highlight was receiving the prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER Award. At a workshop for the application for the award, we were urged to be as ambitious as possible. So that’s what I did: I combined themes that interest me, ranging from cognitive processes to security engineering.

Another very memorable achievement was the application that we created for a township of New Jersey in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. The application enabled residents to report any dangerous trees and other risks to utility companies. Once the danger spots are clearly and undeniably pointed out, the utilities companies cannot retrospectively claim that it did not know about them – and it is therefore worthwhile for them to do something about it before the next hurricane comes. For our work together with the township we received the Sustainable Jersey Creation & Innovation Award. The application was not technically demanding and did not produce top publications, but it showed once again how important it is to do this work in interaction with people and society, and not just look down at the world from the  ivory tower.

What is required from a research scientist?

According to one study, scientists who achieve good results have something in common: they believe in what they are doing even when no one else does. I myself have great confidence in the gut feeling; the feeling that there is something interesting and worth exploring here. It always takes time, and one must put up with moments of despair – and get through them and carry on.

Independence is one of the best and the most challenging aspects of the scientist’s work. Nobody's is going to come and say what you should do and how you should do it. Or if they do, you yourself can decide how seriously to take their advice. However, this independence is something which you must enjoy. Good interaction skills are also helpful. I'm a social guy, I like to bounce ideas around with colleagues and my students.

It also doesn’t do any harm to have a good sense of humour. Often our work is not, after all, a matter of life and death.

What are your expectations for the future?

In addition to being a professor at Aalto, I was also appointed as the Director of Helsinki-Aalto Center of Information Security (HAIC). We have a great team, which was assembled by my predecessor, and I can't wait to get down to working with them and developing myself in this totally new position.

I am also really into Helsinki. It's wonderful to live in a city and be able to get everywhere I need to go by tram and metro. We’ve already been to Oodi, where we applied for a library card. When I apologised to a librarian there that our address information may not yet up to date, I was told that it does not matter – everyone living in Finland can get a card, regardless of where they live.

Janne Lindqvist and Aalto's other new tenured professors will speak about their research at the Installation Talks event on 29 January. We hope to see you there! Further information is available here

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