Awards & Honours

Nataliia Bielova’s Call to Privacy Research: Journey of a Rising Star

Date:
Changed on 15/11/2023
The W@Privacy Awards have named their ‘Rising Star’ and the world already knows her: tenured research scientist Nataliia Bielova’s work on privacy and data protection has not just empowered countless regulators and policy-makers out there, it also enables daily web users to make their own informed and free decisions. Wondering how rising stars are born, we caught Nataliia with at least ten questions too many. She kindly agreed to share with us her impressive journey marked by life-changing encounters, inspiring women in science, transdisciplinary research, more girls to mentor, and dark patterns being defeated by the bright side of the Force. Here is her story, in her own words.
Nataliia Bielova reçevant son prix W@Privacy Award à Bruxelles le 14 novembre 2023

Chapter 1: The San Francisco Poster

The funny thing is, I wasn’t first interested in privacy. I spent my postdoc year at Inria in Rennes working on secure information flow in programming languages until a strange inner calling started resonating in 2012. I was attending the flagship conference in my area of expertise, the IEEE Security & Privacy in San Francisco, where I was dreaming to publish one day. On my second day there I bumped into a young PhD student presenting her poster. There she was, passionately discussing her new paper on detecting and defending against Web tracking. Her name was Franziska Roesner and I remember thinking: “Wow, this is fascinating, I wish I could do something like this one day!”

Back home, I started delving into the brand new field of web tracking research and soon got caught into Ashkan Soltani and his colleagues’ early investigations on cookies “respawning” - process by which browser cookies recreate themselves after being deleted by the user.

I must say there was a before and after San Francisco, but it would take a few more years for me to make the big move. I first repurposed my current research to the detection of web tracking. Then I got my tenure at Inria Sophia Antipolis, gave birth to my daughter and met Guillene Ribière from the Inria TIPD (Transfer, Innovation and Partnerships Department). Our spirit-lifting conversations convinced me to attend the CPDP conference for law professionals, where I found out that Inria Privatics colleagues were already involved in the transdisciplinary collaboration with law scholars and regulators.

Chapter 2: Sour Cookies and The Big Paper

Around that time, my first PhD student, Doliere Francis Some, started making large-scale measurements to detect vulnerabilities in 1 million web pages. While such automated measurements are pure computer science, it soon dawned on me that I needed law scholars as well. So, winning the Young Researcher Grant from the French National Research Agency (ANR JCJC) for the PrivaWeb project in 2018 enabled me to set up my first transdisciplinary team to address the complex problem of legal compliance of websites with the laws designed to protect users.

Law researcher Cristiana Santos started working with me in 2019 and what we found out was most concerning: hundreds of websites were using cookie banners that didn’t respect users’ privacy choice. Our work got published at the same flagship IEEE Security and Privacy Conference that I had attended in 2012 : eight years later, my dream was coming true! It didn’t take long for the None Of Your Business (NOYB) NGO to follow suit. They leveraged our research to file three GDPR complaints to the French Data Protection Authority (CNIL). Over the next three years, our paper would be cited over 200 times while NOYB would file 500 more complaints to European Data Protection Authorities based on our work. The Belgian Data Protection Authority even used the arguments from our scientific paper in its decision to fine IAB Europe over its consent framework's GDPR violations.

W@Privacy Awards

Nataliia's Award

The W@Privacy Awards (the “Privacy Awards”) recognize notable female privacy women who lead by example, empower others, make an impact in their community.

Nataliia won the Rising Star category recognizing a professional with less than ten years of experience in the privacy field who has demonstrated promising technical or practical abilities through work and/or academic research on privacy topics.

 

Chapter 3: New Work on Dark Patterns

As these events unfolded, human-computer interaction and design scholar Colin M. Gray had just published his first taxonomy of dark patterns. We thought it would be interesting to delve into these pervasive and hard-to-regulate patterns that hide within cookie banners to coerce users into doing something they wouldn’t do otherwise.

Our early-morning calls with Colin during the 2020 pandemic soon gave birth to the very first research study combining the knowledge of Computer Science, Law and HCI/Design scholars. Published at the flagship ACM Human-Computer Interaction conference (ACM CHI'2021), it reached a pinnacle reserved to the top 5% of papers: the "Best of CHI Honorable Mention".

If you ask me how the enforcement of privacy laws is doing these days, I would say that the sky is brighter above countries like France, thanks to the CNIL’s tireless efforts. I spent one year in their Digital Innovation Lab (LINC) helping to regulate web tracking and dark patterns while strengthening relationships with academic research. These bonds are even more critical as increasingly complex privacy threats are looming in the areas of mobile, IoT, new voice interfaces and augmented/virtual reality.

Collaboration with other disciplines such as economics are equally critical to further analyze the complex technological ecosystem and the economic incentives at hand for each stakeholder involved. Without this in-depth understanding, regulators and policy makers cannot protect citizens from the advanced technologies that leak user data and from the dark patterns that manipulate them on an unprecedented scale.

It is also important to reach beyond the academic and regulation realms to empower citizen themselves. When my Privatics colleague Cedric Lauradoux contacted me back in 2017 to invite me to take part in a new Inria Learning Lab MOOC on Privacy Protection, I didn’t hesitate for one second. So far, the MOOC has been attended by more than 43,000 French-speaking participants from all over the world.

Nataliia Bielova, Colin M Gray et Cristiana Santos : première rencontre post confinement au CNIL à Paris
CNIL, Paris, 2022 : Nataliia Bielova, Colin M Gray and Cristiana Santos meet for the first time after months of lockdown and virtual meetings.
   

Light Bearers

Nataliia’s work together with Cristiana Santos, Colin M. Gray, her students and colleagues from the Privatics team has shed precious light on privacy issues to policy-makers and regulators all over the world:

  • European Data Protection Board
  • French Data Protection Authority (CNIL)
  • EU Commission
  • Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)
  • Belgian Data Protection Authority
  • UK Competition & Markets Authority
  • Norwegian Consumer Council

 

Chapter 4: Arise, Young Stars!

My legal twin Cristiana Santos has moved to Utrecht University and won an Inria International Chair to focus on the most critical fields of consent and dark pattern lawfulness. In the meantime, I have had the joy to mentor, together with Arnaud Legout from the DIANA team, the talented PhD student Imane Fouad and MSc intern Vera Wesselkamp. Our joint research on Web tracking detection was published at the top Privacy Enhancing Technologies Symposium (PETs) in 2020 and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) invited Imane to present this work. Her follow-up 2022 PETs paper on cookie respawning received a recognition by the Future of Privacy Forum’s “Privacy Papers for Policymakers”: the Honorable mention for the Student Paper Award in 2023.

I am incredibly proud of my students’ success and cannot wait for them to enjoy the scientific freedom as much as I do at Inria. I often encourage them to make time for career-building by networking and attending key events, but also to open up to each other about the ups and downs of their academic career. Next on my agenda for the privacy research community is to offer free on-site child care as part of every conference, which will greatly help young women attend key events.

By sharing my own personal and professional experience whenever I can, I also hope to encourage more female students to consider computer science and transdisciplinary research as a career. Based on my own experience, I know that even a single role model can have a great impact on a young woman’s career choice.

Image
Nataliia Bielova pendant la remise des prix W@Privacy Award à Bruxelles le 14 novembre 2023
Verbatim

Based on my own experience, I know that even a single role model can have a great impact on a young woman’s career choice.

Auteur

Nataliia Bielova

Poste

Tenured Research Scientist in Computer Science at Inria

Next Chapter…

In addition to building more connections with regulators both within and beyond the EU, I am currently working beyond Data Protection for my research to cover Consumer Protection, Competition and new EU laws (Digital Services Act package - DSA and DMA, Data Governance Act, AI Act). My work will also see more and more transdisciplinary collaborations with scholars in economics and hopefully psychology, neuroscience and brain-computer interaction soon.

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