Image of multiple screens

Villasenor on ‘Deepfakes’ and the Uncertainty of Truth

Public Policy Professor John Villasenor wrote a piece for the Brookings Institution on “deepfakes” and the uncertainty of truth as a result. Villasenor defined deepfakes as intentionally manipulated videos that make a person appear to say or do something they, in fact, did not. He suggested three strategies to address this issue: deepfake detection technology, legal and legislative remedies, and an increase in public awareness. Artificial intelligence would detect image inconsistencies due to video manipulation, he said, adding that legal and legislative actions must strike a balance to protect people from deepfakes without overstepping. He said viewers can combat deepfakes by refusing to believe questionable videos are real. “That knowledge won’t stop deepfakes, but it can certainly help blunt their impact,” he said. Villasenor is currently a nonresident senior fellow in Governance Studies and the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution.


 

Villasenor Explores Potential Consequences of UCLA Memorandum About Publisher

Public Policy Professor John Villasenor published an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education exploring the potential repercussions of university involvement in boycotts. Amid negotiations for a new contract between UCLA and academic publisher Elsevier, UCLA executives published a memorandum “Important Notice Regarding Elsevier Journals” in December 2018, urging UCLA faculty to consider “declining to review articles for Elsevier journals,” “looking at other journal-publishing options” and “contacting the publisher … and letting them know that you share the negotiators’ concerns.” By advocating an Elsevier boycott, Villasenor said, UCLA administration may be forced to “come up with a framework to decide which types of boycotts the institution can endorse.” Villasenor concludes that the “UCLA administration’s call for faculty members to boycott Elsevier has blurred the lines between grass-roots, faculty-led activism — a time-honored mechanism that can be very effective for social change — and institution-led activism, which raises complex legal, policy and ethical issues.”


‘Ritualized Apologies’ Can Curb Free Expression, Villasenor Writes

UCLA Luskin Public Policy Professor John Villasenor recently co-authored an article on “ritualized apologies,” the growing trend of self-flagellation or self-censorship following rhetorical missteps that fall out of line with popular views. The ritualized apology is regularly seen in the corporate world and on college campuses, particularly in places where the political left holds sway, he and his co-author wrote in the online magazine Quillette. “In today’s increasingly tribalized climate, transgressions that step out of line with the left often lead to demands for apologies—the more humbly offered, the better,” they wrote. “Apologies have become the ritualized mechanism to avoid permanent professional and/or social banishment.” They concluded that encouraging healthy dialogue across party lines is necessary to avoid extreme political polarization.


 

Villasenor on the Growing Promise of Artificial Intelligence

In a recent article for research think-tank Brookings, UCLA Luskin Public Policy Professor John Villasenor commented on the increasing presence of artificial intelligence in diverse fields such as geopolitics, manufacturing, trade, agriculture and transportation. As research and funding increase at a dramatic rate, innovation in AI is becoming ever more synonymous with technological progress and economic growth. Villasenor enumerates the many advantages of working with artificial intelligence, claiming that “AI will make it easier to predict violent storms. It can help with drug development to help reduce the impact of disease. It can improve agricultural yields, and help manage the complexities of the supply chain for food [and] medicine.” However, AI is more than a marker of technological progress: Villasenor ends his piece with the overarching conclusion that “as we move towards the middle of the 21st century, a nation’s geopolitical standing and its strength in AI will be increasingly intertwined.”


 

Kavanaugh Hearings Show Potential of Social Media Polling, Villasenor Writes

In a Forbes article following the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that included testimony from U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, UCLA Luskin’s John Villasenor highlighted results from two polls taken by College Pulse. The mobile application and website, which aggregates campus public opinion, showed that overall opinion about Kavanaugh’s confirmation did not change significantly after the testimony. But “breaking down the data down by gender tells an important part of the story: Among the respondents, college men … saw their support increase an additional 8 percentage points,” Villasenor noted. College women also showed increased support for confirmation in the poll, but only by 3 percentage points above the pre-hearing support level of just 11 percent. “The tech industry has barely scratched the surface of the potential for an optimized combination of social media and polling technologies,” Villasenor wrote.


 

Villasenor Writes About Facebook, Law Enforcement and Cybersecurity

UCLA Luskin Public Policy Professor John Villasenor authored a Forbes story on the cybersecurity implications of a court case involving Facebook and the U.S. government. At issue is whether the government can compel Facebook to break the encryption of voice communications made through its Messenger app. Law enforcement is seeking the communications as part of a probe into the MS-13 gang, Reuters reported. Since Facebook is not a traditional telecommunications carrier, Villasenor wrote, “there is the question of whether the government has the legal authority to order Facebook to wiretap Messenger audio exchanges.” He added, “Regardless of what one thinks of the U.S. government’s assertions regarding a right to access the audio exchanges in this particular case, if Facebook is forced to comply (and shows that it is technically able to do so), other governments—including authoritarian governments—will take notice.” Villasenor also commented in a Washington Post article about the brewing court battle.


 

John Villasenor Launches Podcast on Cybersecurity

UCLA Luskin Public Policy Professor John Villasenor has launched a new podcast focusing on today’s most pressing cybersecurity challenges. As host of “Cyberspectives,” Villasenor will draw on his work at the intersection of technology, policy, law and business to provide insight and analysis on the digital frontier. In the podcast’s inaugural episode, Villasenor interviewed Andrew Grotto, a former White House cybersecurity policy director in both the Obama and Trump administrations. Their conversation touched on emerging opportunities in the commercial cybersecurity sector and how the academic community can best contribute to the cyber policy dialogue. The “Cyberspectives” podcast was launched by Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, where Villasenor is a visiting fellow.

Immersed in the Real World The yearlong Applied Policy Project puts MPP candidates on the front lines to grapple with issues close to home and far afield

By Mary Braswell

It’s a year’s worth of exacting work, whittled down to a 20-minute talk.

And for some, it’s over in a flash.

“We were all talking about it afterward. ‘That was 20 minutes? It felt like five minutes!’ ” Ramandeep Kaur said of her team’s Applied Policy Project presentation, a rite of passage for all Luskin School MPP candidates.

Kaur’s team was one of 13 to stand before a packed lecture hall over three evenings in May. Each succinctly presented a policy issue, reviewed their research, made a case for the wisest course of action — then fielded a barrage of questions from their peers and professors. They also produced polished reports laying out their findings in detail.

In short, they were using skills each will need as they leave UCLA Luskin and put their master’s degrees to work.

“These Applied Policy Projects are extremely beneficial to our MPP students as they are an opportunity to put all of their policy analysis skills to work in a real-world setting,” Public Policy Vice Chair Manisha Shah said.

“In their first year, students learn so many of the tools necessary to do policy analysis, and then in their second year, they get to implement these tools in the APP,” Shah said. “The final product is an important piece of policy analysis on topics ranging from health to housing to the environment to social justice issues … and the list goes on.”

This year’s APP teams conducted rigorous research on issues near and far — from the drinkability of Los Angeles tap water to human rights abuses in Europe.

Some of the teams formed a year in advance, as students with similar interests and complementary skill sets banded together. Knowing they would work on the APP during their entire second year, they chose topics close to their hearts.

“I knew I wanted to do a project I was passionate about, a project that had an advocacy lens on it,” Kaur said.

Teammate Annia Yoshizumi had worked with the UCLA Luskin-based Center for Neighborhood Knowledge (CNK) and suggested pursuing a project on housing. Allan Nguyen and Xiaoyue Zheng brought strong data analysis skills to the team, Kaur said.

Their research on the impact of drastic rent increases in unincorporated L.A. County benefited two clients, CNK and the Los Angeles Center for Community Law and Action.

“For me personally, I did grow up in L.A., and my parents did live in a rent-controlled apartment, and they were able to then save a lot of money and purchase a house,” Kaur said. “But that’s not an opportunity that many people have. So how do you tell that story so that people understand?”

Another team focused on preserving undocumented patients’ access to healthcare in a time of anti-immigrant rhetoric. Two of the team’s members are earning concurrent MPP and M.D. degrees through UCLA’s Prime Program, including Joe Torres, who was undocumented himself until he became a U.S. citizen in 2016.

Working with Venice Family Clinic, which has provided medical care to vulnerable populations in West Los Angeles for nearly 50 years, the team paired data analysis with extensive surveys in English and Spanish. Among the findings: In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, 64 percent reported more fear or anxiety about ICE raids specifically at clinics, and 39 percent felt less safe taking their U.S. citizen children to the doctor.

To maintain the trust of its patients, Venice Family Clinic should step up the security of its patient records and forge partnerships with legal advocates in the community, the team recommended.

This year’s APP clients were a diverse lot, including the Partnership for L.A. Schools, the Clean Power Alliance, the European Implementation Network, an administrative judge for the Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission and several local government entities.

One team that shared an interest in international development took on the World Bank as a client. Their focus was assessing financial incentives for hospitals in the Kyrgyz Republic to improve infant and maternal mortality rates.

Key to the project were interviews conducted with agencies on the ground, team member Tanya Honey said.

“That’s the thing I love to do — I love doing outreach,” said Honey, who spent hours on international calls with the World Health Organization, United Nations and USAID. She credits faculty advisor Wes Yin with pushing the team to use these conversations with experts to provide context to their data.

“I think that was extremely valuable to our project,” Honey said, adding, “I’ve never heard so many Russian accents!” With a bachelor’s degree in linguistics, Honey speaks Spanish, French, Italian, Chinese, Hindu and English, but “not Russian — yet.”

To prepare for their APP presentation, Honey’s team recruited students from the Luskin School’s third-floor Commons to serve as a mock audience.

“We were definitely a little bit nervous,” she said, but fortunately her team had substantial experience in public speaking. Teammate Parshan Khosravi is an officer and advocate with the Graduate Students Association, and others have taught classes as teacher’s aides or presented papers at symposiums.

Another APP tradition also helped calm nerves: dressing like you mean business. “I actually feel more confident when I dress up,” Honey said.

Following each APP presentation is a question and answer period that can be daunting. While everyone in the audience is supportive of the presenters, many are also experts in their fields and can readily spot holes in data, assumptions and methodology.

Kaur’s team knew that its main policy recommendation — a rent stabilization ordinance — was controversial.

“A lot of economists do not like RSOs, so we knew we were going to be hit with a lot of questions about that,” she said.

But her team was confident in their analysis and ready for any challenge they might face.

“We did a mock presentation in front of both of our clients, and had them ask us really hard questions that they get in the field when they talk about any sort of tenant protection policy,” she said. “So that really prepped us.”

Also important to Kaur’s team was putting a human face on their policy analysis. They included tenants’ voices because “we really wanted to frame it in a way that people understood who this policy was going to impact.”

Faculty advisors for this year’s APP teams were Shah, Yin, Meredith Phillips and John Villasenor. “What’s great about the experience is that, while it is a real-world experience, it is also a guided experience in that each group is assigned to a Public Policy professor who advises them through the entire process,” Shah said.

This year, three APP projects were singled out for special recognition:

  • Highest honors: Reducing Delay to Promote Civil Rights: How Administrative Judges at the EEOC Can Resolve Employment Discrimination Complaints in a Fair Yet Efficient Manner (Delvin Turner, Elizabeth Joun, David Lyons)
  • Honors: Social Determinants of Health Literacy: Optimizing Public Health Outreach and Education Strategies in Long Beach, California (Stephanie Berger, Marisa Conner, Alexander Fung, Taylor Wyatt)
  • Honors: LA TAP (Tap Water Action Plan): Evaluating the Customer Experience of Tap Water in Los Angeles (Virdiana Auger-Velez, Rachel Lacoe, Caleb Rabinowitz, Bei Zhao)

Find more photos from the 2018 Applied Policy Project presentations on Flickr

Applied Policy Project presentations 2018

Views Among College Students Regarding the First Amendment

In a new podcast episode for the Brookings Institution, UCLA Luskin Public Policy Professor John Villasenor discusses college students’ views on the First Amendment, based on a recent survey of 1,500 current undergraduate students. Villasenor finds that a concerning number of students lack essential knowledge regarding what the First Amendment does and does not protect.

Regulating the Unmanned Skies UCLA Luskin public policy expert John Villasenor testifies before a U.S. Senate committee about drones, privacy and legislation

By Stan Paul

John Villasenor

John Villasenor, professor of public policy at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, told a U.S. Senate committee that Congress might want to consider a deliberate approach to any attempts to legislate the use of unmanned aircraft.

He testified on March 15, 2017, before the full U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation chaired by U.S. Senator John Thune (R-SD), on issues related to unmanned aircraft in the national airspace system.

Villasenor, who also holds UCLA faculty appointments in engineering, management and law, was among a group of witnesses who were representing government and industry interests. The witnesses included the director of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Unmanned Aircraft Systems.

Members of the Senate committee were briefed on a wide range of issues that will affect the emerging technology as legislation catches up with innovations to and applications for the hundreds of thousands of unmanned aircraft systems — commonly known as drones — already in in the hands of individuals, commercial interests and government agencies.

Focusing on privacy aspects of drones, Villasenor cautioned the committee that while unmanned aircraft can potentially be used to gather information in ways that violate privacy, this does not mean that new federal unmanned aircraft privacy legislation is immediately needed or should quickly be put in place.

“Rather, the key question is: Do unmanned aircraft put privacy at risk in ways that fall outside the scope of existing constitutional, statutory and common law privacy protections?” asked Villasenor. “There are good reasons to believe that the answer to that question is ‘no.’ As a result, I think it is premature to enact broad new federal legislation specifically directed to unmanned aircraft privacy.”

He further explained that while limiting unmanned aircraft in obtaining and using information, “It is far harder to do so in a manner that is consistent with the full scope of the First Amendment.” At the same time, he commented that unintended consequences of legislation are especially heightened in areas where rapidly changing technology and privacy intersect, such as autonomous vehicles, location-aware smartphone applications and “always-on” devices with audio and video capabilities.

Other witnesses testified about the variety of issues to be considered, including limiting drone technology for use in agriculture, air traffic safety, infrastructure inspection and protection, and as critical tools in saving lives in natural disasters and search and rescue efforts.

Villasenor, while recommending restraint, concluded the hearing by stressing that Congress still has a vital role in addressing the challenges of emerging technologies. He urged dialogue among lawmakers, regulators, consumers, the commercial sector and civil liberties groups, so all parties can gain a better understanding of the issues.

“Part of that role involves identifying where existing legal frameworks are working well and where they are falling short,” Villasenor said. “Part of that role involves knowing when not to legislate. And part of that role involves enacting carefully targeted legislation at the right time.”

After his appearance before the Senate panel, Villasenor said he was grateful to have the opportunity to testify.

“Congressional hearings provide a very important opportunity to contribute to the dialog regarding today’s complex policy questions,” he said. “I appreciated the chance to testify before the Senate Commerce Committee on the privacy challenges being raised by rapidly changing technologies.”

In addition to the archived webcast, the full written testimony of Villasenor and the other witnesses may be found online.