Computing Profession

Susan Landau Awarded AMS Bertrand Russell Prize

Susan Landau in her study

Landau was awarded the 2024 Bertrand Russell Prize for writing technical research papers and op-eds, publishing public-facing work, briefing policymakers, and participating in national studies.

Susan Landau has received several awards in her career as an expert in computer privacy and security, but the most recent, the 2024 Bertrand Russell Prize of the American Mathematical Society, holds special meaning for her. 

The prize, which honors contributions by mathematicians that “promote good in the world,” has a connection to one of her heroes, nuclear physicist Joseph Rotblat. It was Rotblat who, together with British mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell, founded the anti-nuclear-weapons Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs in 1957.

Like both of Landau’s parents, Rotblat was a Polish Jew whose life was warped by the Holocaust. When he joined the Manhattan Project in 1944, “he had a clear idea of why he was working on the bomb,” said Landau. “It was because the Nazis might be developing one.” When it became apparent the Nazis had given up the effort, Rotblat resigned from the Manhattan Project, the only scientist to do so. He then reoriented his research to benefit humanity, pursuing a specialty in medical uses of radiation, and became a tireless advocate for peace.

While a graduate student in theoretical computer science at MIT in the early 1980s, Landau was deeply impressed when she met Rotblat at a student conference sponsored by Pugwash. Some years later, she interviewed him and wrote a profile that appeared in Scientific American after Rotblat and Pugwash received the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize. “I was really overwhelmed by him,” Landau said; “overwhelmed by his dedication, his morality, his choices.”

That sense of the social responsibility of scientists has animated Landau’s career, which began in academic mathematics and computer science and has branched out into cybersecurity policy and law. Neal Koblitz, professor of mathematics at the University of Washington in Seattle, said Landau “is probably more knowledgeable than anyone else outside of government about U.S. government surveillance and the legal and other aspects of the controversies surrounding it.”

After earning her Ph.D. in theoretical computer science at MIT in 1983, Landau spent several years at Wesleyan University. Her first foray into policy matters came in 1993, when the ACM U.S. Public Policy Committee (now known as the ACM U.S. Technology Policy Council) asked her to serve as staff person for a report about the controversial Clipper Chip, a device designed to give U.S. law enforcement back-door access to encrypted communications. She became the lead author of the resulting report, Codes, Keys and Conflicts: Issues in U.S Crypto Policy, which appeared in 1994 and which contributed to the U.S. government’s decision to abandon the Clipper Chip.

ACM Turing Award recipient Whitfield Diffie, who served on the report committee, afterward teamed up with Landau to write Privacy on the Line: The Politics of Wiretapping and Encryption (MIT Press, 1999). Now a classic of the cybersecurity literature, the book surveys the technical and political landscape of back-door devices like the Clipper Chip, concluding that their law-enforcement advantages do not justify the threats they pose to privacy and security. 

The book exemplifies Landau’s ability both to project and to engender respect for opposing viewpoints. “Susan’s effectiveness as a privacy researcher and advocate is explained both by the high quality of her writing and by her detailed and careful style that avoids emotion and stridency,” Koblitz said.

Landau spent a decade as a senior staff engineer at Sun Microsystems, doing a combination of policy and technical work, and today is Bridge Professor in Cyber Security and Policy at the Fletcher School and the School of Engineering at Tufts University. Her Tufts colleague Kathleen Fisher, currently director of the Information Innovation Office at the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), noted Landau’s longstanding efforts to promote diversity and inclusion in mathematics, science, and technology. “Since I’ve known her, she has always amplified the accomplishments of others and encouraged them to persist despite their challenges,” said Fisher. 

Together with Elaine Weyuker of the University of Central Florida, Landau founded ACM’s Athena Lecturer Award to celebrate women researchers who have made fundamental contributions to computer science.

A seasoned commentator, Landau has published pieces in such outlets as The Washington Post and Science magazine; she appears frequently on NPR and the BBC, and posts articles at She has presented expert testimony before the U.S. Congress and has served on several high-level panels producing influential reports. Her basic stance is that giving governments the means to break into encrypted communications—even for legitimate purposes like fighting crime and terrorism—actually reduces security, because bad actors will exploit those means,too.

“If there were a technical way to prevent all the bad applications and only allow the good applications, yeah, I’d be in favor of such an approach,” Landau said. However, she said, there is not. One must consider all the ways encryption is used in society to protect not just personal privacy, but business communications, intellectual property, public safety, journalistic independence, political dissidence—the list goes on. “You have to think about it in its full set of contexts,” she said. “And that’s what I try to do.”

That breadth of view has informed Landau’s most recent work, examining proposals to allow law enforcement to break encryption schemes when child abuse is suspected. Her methodical approach has helped turn down the emotional temperature of the discussion. The main problem, she said, is that “we’re talking about a complex social issue and pretending there’s a technical fix.” The issue came to the forefront of the news in December 2023, when Meta began installing strong encryption on user communications across its platforms, including on Facebook and Instagram.

While Landau works in a different sphere from her hero Joseph Rotblat, like him she has adopted an ethical stance that compels her to consider the societal ramifications of scientific and technological developments. Many security researchers have a tendency “to take purely technical approaches to problems without adequately considering the human issues that arise,” Koblitz said. “Susan’s contributions have put ethical and social aspects of cybersecurity in the center of our attention.” 

Allyn Jackson is a journalist specializing in science and mathematics, who is based in Germany.

© 2024 ACM 0001-0782/24/1

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