Inria Awards

Catuscia Palamidessi - curiosity developed through science

Date:
Changed on 22/11/2022
Having initially been drawn to theoretical subjects, Catuscia Palamidessi turned to more applied subjects such as data security, confidentiality, and the quantitative analysis of information leaks. Known across the world, her research has now seen her awarded the Inria - French Academy of Sciences Grand Prize. Let’s take a closer look at this impressive yet understated scientist.
Catuscia Prix Inria
© Inria / Photo S. Érôme - Signatures.

Logic programming and competition theory

There was nothing to suggest that Catuscia Palamidessi would go on to become a world-class researcher. Quite the opposite, in fact. “I grew up in a really conservative village in Tuscany, where women were viewed as being inferior to men. Fortunately we had school, where we were shown more respect. I excelled in maths and wanted to escape my fate, and so I seized the opportunity.” 

At the age of 20 she became the first girl from her village to go to university, enrolling at the University of Pisa. “My parents used to tell me I was wasting my time.” But Catuscia Palamidessi excelled in the sciences, plotted her own course and began racking up discoveries.

When I chose to study IT I didn’t know what it was. I had no idea back then that you could have a career at university. But I was thirsty for knowledge. 

One thing led to another, she was made an assistant professor, before going on to become an associate lecturer and then a tenured professor at the University of Genoa in 1994. That was the year she met her future husband, an American IT researcher. The two of them were studying the same topics: logic programming and competition theory. “These were highly abstract subjects, which I found fascinating from a mathematical perspective. They helped me to make a name for myself; my results left a significant impression on the scientific community.” 

Inria and openness to applied research

These theoretical tools would prove pivotal a few years later when she turned her attention towards applied research. “Because I had explored a range of subjects over time, I had a wealth of experience to draw upon. My curiosity was an asset.” In 1998 Palamidessi and her husband found jobs in the USA at the University of Pennsylvania. But she soon found herself missing the European way of life.

When Inria announced they were recruiting research directors in 2002, both of them leapt at the chance and headed to France. “That was a turning point in my career. I didn't have any teaching to do anymore, and I was encouraged to engage in applied research that would have tangible benefits for society.” Catuscia Palamidessi is now head of the Comete project team at the Inria Saclay centre. Specialising in security and privacy, the team is comprised of sixteen researchers.

Geo-indistinguishability: masking internet users’ locations

The subject which has earned her the greatest notoriety is “geo-indistinguishability”, by which internet users are able to make geolocalised queries while masking their exact location. Privacy is very much the name of the game.

But how can an online service recommend a nearby restaurant if it doesn’t know where you are? The solution to this involves interfering slightly with information on your position: just enough to muddy the waters, but not enough to distort restaurant recommendations. Researchers refer to this as “local differential privacy”.

2013: a scientific paper goes worldwide

In 2013 Catuscia Palamidessi co-authored a paper on geo-indistinguishability, outlining innovative mathematical concepts through which it could be achieved. The paper went worldwide, earning her multiple invitations to international conferences. Nine years later, it has been cited nearly 1,100 times in other scientific papers.

It also led to two R&D projects in the world of industry with Renault and Orange. Palamidessi and her team also developed Location Guard, a free extension which masks location data on the opensource browsers Chrome, Firefox and Opera.

Catuscia Palamidessi - Chinese portrait

If I were...

  • a book: The Idiot by Dostoevsky: “for the quality of the writing in it and its dazzling psychological insights.”
  • a film: Girl with a Suitcase by Valerio Zurlini. “The story of a young woman from a small town who decides to break free from the constraints of her upbringing.”
  • an animal: a cat “I’ve always had one, apart from in recent years where I’ve been travelling a lot.” 
  • a quote: “Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value” (Albert Einstein)
  • a holiday destination: Val Thorens in winter, “for the skiing and the beautiful landscape”
  • a season: autumn, “because as a child, that’s when I would go back to school, away from the highly conservative environment of my village”
  • a song: The Phantom of the Opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber
  • an object: a book, “because it opens up access to everything”

Quantitative analysis: the art of preventing data leaks

She also studied another major subject alongside four foreign colleagues, the quantitative analysis of data leaks, drawing extensively on theoretical work from early on in her career. “When an IT system is using private data to produce public results, attackers can ‘go back up the chain’ in order to access this private data. For an election where electronic voting has been used, for example, the attacker will try to identify how each individual voter has voted. We created tools capable of evaluating how vulnerable systems were to this type of attack and rectifying the situation.” 

This also went on to have a global impact, earning a prize from the NSA, America's largest intelligence agency, in 2014. In Brazil, the government tasked one of Catuscia Palamidessi’s former PhD students with improving database security for the Ministry of Education. A partnership with Google is set to begin in 2023.

Moving towards more ethical artificial intelligence

The researcher met her goal: to do something good for society. Evidence of this can be seen in the 2.2 million euros awarded by the EU (in the form of an ERC Advanced Grant) in 2018 for enhancing the security of personal data.

I was really happy to receive that sort of recognition. It enabled me to recruit seven employees and to take things to the next level.  

Driven as ever by her insatiable curiosity, Catuscia Palamidessi has spent the past two years exploring a new continent, artificial intelligence, with a particular focus on the prevention of bias. “There was a lot of talk about software used by police in the USA that overestimated the risk of recidivism among offenders whose ‘race’ was black. The tools I am working on are designed to prevent this sort of bias. Ambitious? Maybe, but certainly not impossible for such a talented researcher.

Quick bio

• 1988 – Graduates with a PhD in IT from the University of Pisa (Italy)

• 1994 – Becomes a tenured professor at the University of Genoa (Italy)

• 2002 – Made director of research at the Inria Saclay centre

• 2013 – Publishes an article on geo-indistinguishability, the most cited of her career

• 2014 – Awarded the prize for the year’s best scientific paper on cybersecurity by the NSA

• 2018 – Awarded an ERC Advanced Grant of 2.2 million euros

• 2022 – Awarded the Inria – French Academy of Sciences Grand Prize

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