CISAC Honors Alum Publishes Policy-Relevant Thesis Work on Zero-Days


Honors Class of 2014
Honors Class of 2014 with program co-directors, Dr. Martha Crenshaw and Dr. Coit Blacker, and Teaching Assistant Shiri Krebs
Photo credit: 
Rod Searcey

A recent Lawfare blogpost by Mailyn Fidler (Class of 2014) featured research findings on zero-day vulnerabilities, the topic of both her CISAC honors thesis and a forthcoming law review paper. Fidler graduated from Stanford a year ago, having successfully completed the CISAC Honors Program in International Security StudiesMartha Crenshaw, who co-directs the Honors Program with Chip Blacker, and was a mentor to Fidler, comments: “We are enormously proud of and gratified by Mailyn’s accomplishment.  The publication of her research findings about zero-day exploits is exactly what we aspire to for our honors students.  We will cite her as a model and inspiration for years to come.  But of course first and foremost the credit is Mailyn’s, for her command of the subject and her determination and professionalism – qualities that have long been evident.”

Fidler, who is currently a Marshall Scholar at Oxford University, studying for a master’s degree in International Relations, is eventually planning to head to law school, as an aspiring legal academic.  In the short term, Fidler is looking forward to the publication in summer 2015 of a paper titled  “Regulating The Zero-Day Vulnerability Trade: A Preliminary Analysis.” The paper, a revised version of her honors thesis, will appear in I/S: A Journal of Law and Policy for the Information Society, a law review focused on the intersection of technology and law.

Mailyn FidlerFidler, who studied Science, Technology, and Society at Stanford with an emphasis on computer science and political science, credits CISAC with teaching her a lesson in tenacity: “When you are doing research like this (policy-relevant and possibly controversial), I learned you get told “no” a lot, or that you are wrong. Completing this research was good practice in tenacity, in learning to sense when it is best to follow inner conviction and intuition despite external doubts.”

She took away lasting lessons from the Honors College, a two-week program that takes place in Washington DC, providing students with exposure to policy-makers who are prominent in the students’ fields of research. “Something that stood out to me was meeting role models at the tops of their fields with such integrity and kindness,” she reflects. “Colleen Hanabusa [US Rep, Hawaii, 2011-2015], Jane Harman [Director of the Woodrow Wilson Center], and our own Karl Eikenberry and Tom Fingar particularly left a lasting impact for this reason exactly.”

Another teaching moment took place during a visit to the National Security Agency: “There was a picture of the Twin Towers front and center on the speakers’ table, and they had us pass it around and hold the picture. For me, this was indicative of how deeply this event has influenced government policy, that even a group of student visitors was asked to engage with surveillance very clearly through the lens of 9/11.”

To Fidler, the ability to have access to experts in the field of international security studies during her year at CISAC has been a great benefit to her work: “With the support of CISAC, I was able to interview and otherwise engage with a range of high-level contacts in policy, industry, and academia, and I still connect with them now, when relevant.”

In Fidler’s eyes, one of the highlights of the CISAC program was the opportunity to engage with fellow honors students as scholars and as friends and the resulting broadening of her interests: “One of my CISAC cohort just Facebook messaged me because she saw something in the news about zero-days, which she now cares about, and I, similarly, care a lot more about topics beyond my own field, such as the Indian Civil Nuclear deal and Arctic cooperation, than I did before.”

In addition to Crenshaw, Fidler was also mentored by Jennifer Granick. Granick, an expert on privacy in cyber, is the Director of Civil Liberties at the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society's (CIS) and a CISAC affiliate. Jennifer Granick

“Having Crenshaw and Granick as my mentors was a great pairing. Crenshaw helped me with the more academic side of my research, and Granick was invaluable in connecting me with policy movers and shakers. I ended up writing a blog post with her on Just Security, and have reached out to her numerous times for advice on how to best engage in public debate on my research topic.”

“Mailyn is a great thinker. Her thesis was smart and well-researched, and as it turns out, incredibly timely,” observes Granick. She is a real public asset as both a scholar and a voice in important policy debates.”

Fidler’s research is a work in progress. As different opportunities arise, she is constantly refocusing the lens through which she is looking at the zero-day issue: “As I have continued this work, I have had the opportunity to engage with a much wider range of actors, so I have had to rethink and reanalyze my research from multiple angles. For instance, I had the opportunity to give a presentation on zero-days to Amnesty International’s Technology & Human Rights group, which meant I rethought the issue from a human rights perspective.” Fidler researched specific instances of abuse or potential abuse of human rights using zero-days, she said, and presented the Technology & Human Rights group with several possible normative stances, a change from the more cost/benefit-oriented analysis originally laid out in her thesis.

In Crenshaw’s view, students like Fidler exemplify what the Honors program hopes to accomplish once those students go out into the real world. "We want our students to make a substantive contribution to our understanding of international security,” she notes, “and Mailyn has done just that."

When it comes to contributing to research in international security issues, Fidler is hardly alone among CISAC Honors alums. A partial listing of publications and presentations based on CISAC Honors Theses can be found here.

As a new class of incoming Honors students prepares to join CISAC, Fidler has this advice for her successors: “Don’t be afraid to ask for help or advice“ even if you think it is unlikely or intimidating, “Asking never hurts and often has a good upside.”

“Regulating The Zero-Day Vulnerability Trade: A Preliminary Analysis