The world is an imperfect place, and Edward Felten likes to tinker with it.
Sitting behind his desk in a spacious office in the Computer Science Building, Felten is an unlikely poster child for academic freedom. The desk is piled high with papers, and an abandoned keyboard sits in a box in the corner of the room.
But the scholarly, soft-spoken professor has more than once been the center of attention — and he isn't afraid to put himself there again.
"Ed is not very easily intimidated," computer science professor Andrew Appel said.
In December, Felten released the world's smallest peer-to-peer file-sharing program — 15 lines of code he named tinyP2P — to prove that such programs could not easily be banned.
He has been called in as an intellectual property expert before the Senate and House judiciary committees, testified for the government in the Microsoft antitrust case and been threatened with a lawsuit by the recording industry for his work in digital copyrights.
"He didn't go looking for some of these conflicts — for example, the one with the recording industry. He did sound technical work, and they came after him for the work that he had done," said Larry Peterson, chair of the computer science department. "He found himself in the position of having to defend his academic freedom, and that's basically what he has been doing ever since."
The Microsoft case was Felten's claim to fame, but he said that work was just "the tip of the iceberg" to him.
He's now working on a security analysis of airport security passenger screening.
"The goal of my paper is to talk about flaws, but [also] to describe how the system could be changed in way to make it much more effective without spending a lot of money," he said. "It is a difficult question of how or when to release it, and I haven't made a decision yet."
In Felten's line of work, such difficult questions are not uncommon. Having a tenured position at the University grants him some degree of security.
"It is certainly true that it would be very hard for Ed to do things he's been doing before he had tenure," Peterson said. "Part of it is the freedom that gives him the ability to focus on policy as well as the technological aspects of his job."
Despite the potential for conflict, Felten said the University has been supportive of his work.
"I've had long conversations with people around the University about why we do this kind of work and how to look at the ethics of it," he said.
Making a statement
Felten wrote tinyP2P in response to discussions over the regulation of P2P technology. He cited the MGM v. Grokster case, which will be argued before the Supreme Court later this month, as an attempt to ban such programs.
"There seemed to be a tone that P2P programs are very complicated, mysterious things that only big players could afford to make," Felten said. "I knew that was not true and was looking for a way to convince people of it."
He wrote tinyP2P, he said, to prove a point — not to make something useful.
"It's very easy to write a P2P application," he said. "Therefore policymakers have to realize that it would be very hard to ban or stamp out P2Ps because . . . lots of people know how [to write them]"
Felten wrote tinyP2P with his graduate student Alex Halderman '03. It isn't the first time the duo has caught the eye of the media.
In 2003, Halderman discovered a way to bypass the copy-protection technique in CDs by pressing the Shift key. He was soon threatened with a lawsuit.
"Dr. Felten was invaluable as a part of that experience," Halderman said. "[It] was a difficult legal and political position because I was threatened with a lawsuit. I don't know how I would have dealt with that kind of a reaction . . . without Ed's expertise with law and policy."
Felten's colleagues also noted his unique ability to combine extensive technical knowledge with an awareness of policy.
"For a technological, science or engineering person [to pay] a lot of attention to policy is fairly rare," Peterson said. "Some engineers are only interested in the technical problems that excite them. A lot of what we do has lots of ramifications across society, and Ed is someone that is very interested in those things."
Halderman, who knew Felten as an undergraduate, stayed at Princeton specifically to work with Felten.
"He has this amazing knack for combining very detailed knowledge of technical aspects of a problem with political savvy and an economic way of thinking. It's a very rare mix of talents, I think. That's really what attracted me to stay here at Princeton," Halderman said.
For Felten, the opportunity to work with students like Halderman is what keeps him in the classroom. Felten finds that teaching enhances his ability to do his security research.
"Students are part of the key," he said. "If you're in the technology field and want to stay current, you need to have people around who know about the latest things . . . This is one of the big benefits of being at a university — there's always a constant stream of smart students coming through."
Felten, who teaches a seminar on information technology and the law, said he draws on his own experiences with the legal system, but also gains perspective from his students.
"It's interesting to talk about a wide range of technology policy issues with students every year," he said. "There are always new insights from students . . . and the process in preparing to teach is valuable . . . To teach well you have to be in touch with the broad range of things that are happening, see the big picture."
The big picture
Beyond the University community, Felten speaks out through a daily blog, freedom-to-tinker.com, which he started to advocate "freedom of ordinary users to adapt technologies to their cause."
This kind of "tinkering" includes the recent controversy in which Realnetworks figured out how to bypass a feature on Apple's iPod that prevented songs downloaded from other vendors from working on the player.
"They experimented with the iPod and figured out how to make their product more useful, while simultaneously making people's iPods more useful," Felten explained. "It was positive for consumers, but there were questions on whether it was legal."
In the site's disclaimer, he wrote, "Nothing I write here is endorsed by Princeton University or by anyone else except me. Even I am not too sure about some of this stuff."
Felten's career was not always marked by a penchant for controversy. Many colleagues say a lawsuit threat by the Recording Industry Association of America in 2001 is what sparked his interest in intellectual freedom.
Felten, along with seven other scientists from Princeton, Rice and Xerox, took up a challenge from the recording industry to examine a new anticopying technology. But when they tried to publish their findings, the RIAA sued to keep them from publishing the paper.
Felten and his colleagues subsequently countersued for the right to make their findings public and won. Their paper was officially published as part of the UNESIX Security Symposium in August 2001.
Since that experience, Felten has not shied away from controversy when he believes intellectual freedom is at stake.
"I care about it because I'm one of the people affected. My own research has been challenged, and I'm interested in being able to engage in wide-ranging investigation of technical issues," Felten said. "I like working on things that are important, and I'm not scared off by controversy. Unlike lots of security researchers, I'm in a position where I can afford to do it without risking my job."
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