Patricia Arias-Carbacos

PhD candidate UC3M in Cryptography Research

Interview by: Pricilla Weixler
Edited by: Valeria Pino

She has the know-how, the passion, the talent as well as the curiosity to make the tech field her very own platform. At a very young age she discovered her passion for technology by coincidence and quickly understood she was made to integrate these skills in her future. Now, she is on a mission. Patricia seeks to revolutionize the authentication of electric devices by replacing the common password-username identification. With that she addresses a matter concerning every one of us and, most importantly, a matter which will procure an improved level of security. In this interview she comprehensibly explains her work and plans, speaks about machine learning and what the future might look like. She also touches upon the positive impacts of technology for society and in what ways prejudice about this complex but not intangible field may be erased to make it more accessible. Further, she shares the experiences she has had throughout her career floating mainly within the technological field.  Thus, this is the perfect interview to get an insight into what the techie per se thinks about tech-related topics.

Q: Could you please explain what you do in your job?
A:My mission is to kill the password. Nowadays we interact with different devices either in our personal or in our professional lives. For anything we do – buying tickets for flights for instance – we need to access our mobile phones or laptops. The most dominant way of indicating the user is: Username and Password. This indication of the password is not practical because if it shall be safe, it is supposed to be very complex. Thus, it is often annoying for the user on the one hand plus it might be unsafe on the other – because if it’s memorable to us, it’s easy to crack for a machine. Moreover, on some devices it’s not even convenient when you have to enter long passwords on a small screen. This technology of encrypting something with username and password comes from the 60s. It is truly amazing that we are still using technology that is this old everywhere.

My mission is to kill the password.


Q: What other types of authentication do exist?
A: There exist various other ways of authentication:  fingerprints, many biometrics and today, in research, they are advancing a lot in behavioral biometrics. Meaning, our heartbeat which is unique, the way we walk, the way we speak, the way we type on a keyboard. We have patterns that are unique for each individual. Through machine learning all of this can be analyzed and you can determine with a degree of confidence that the user is present without requiring actions from him. That is to say, the interaction of the user is not required and with a confidence of 90% the user’s presence is still verified. Of course, there are alternative options to passwords with different levels of confidence.


Q: How would this work precisely?
A: In order to open a device these unique behavioral patterns have to fit specific situations: to give you an idea about it, it is not the same if I access my Smartphone at home where I am in a secure space and probably alone. In this situation you can avoid having the user indicating with a password. On the contrary if you use a banking account in a public space you might want to enhance the security and in this case, we have the possibility to combine different authenticators. That is what we need a brain for, a software that senses the environment and determines whether the situation is secure or not and which level of security is given. Depending on that, the software chooses the perfect choice of encryption.


QAre you planning to build a Startup company based on this idea?
A: So far, we are working on a small prototype. We are at the end of the first of the project and we are testing combinations of fingerprint with password. In the long term, it could be interesting to think about starting a business but I still didn’t think about that option yet.


QGoing back in time what was your inspiration to go into the field of telematics engineering?
A: It all started when I was ten years old. I got my first computer as a present – without games, so it was kind of useless but it had a book and I love books. I thought that I could do something with this book and discovered the written instructions. I started to put the written instructions into the computer. With this input the computer was doing things like writing poems, drawing some circumstances or changing the color. I thought to myself: “wow, this is magic”. In the end, when I read the most complex part of the book I was in fact coding without knowing it. To me, it was amazing what you could do with technology and from that point on I had my mind always set on the technological things. I wanted to learn how these technologies work together.


QThat is pretty straight forward.
A: Yes, as I said, I was little – my uncle and aunt gave the computer to me and my brother. However, when my brother noticed that there were no games on it, he was not interested anymore.


QWhat was the reaction of the people around you, your family and friends on the decision to go into engineering?
A: They were always encouraging. I didn’t feel like many other colleagues who heard phrases as: “this degree is for boys”.

No one tells you what to do, so you take all the courses and all the opportunities.


QWhere did you see yourself when you started studying?
A:For sure I didn’t imagine myself as an academic. I wanted to code, I like it. I mainly wanted to be a developer. Maybe in some projects related to space. In the beginning you never know. No one tells you what to do, so you take all the courses and all the opportunities. I was in a research group within university that was collaborating with Nokia. I did my bachelor thesis on security and I was programming for Symbian mobile phones which was the leading operating system at that time. I developed an email client that allows you to communicate securely. With that I mean encrypting and signing the messages which was not possible before with this kind of phones and operating systems. I fell in love with security and with the process of researching. Since to carry out this project I was required to do a lot of research, I decided to stay and do the PhD. Also, I never imagined myself teaching and here I am at the end of my first decade of teaching already.

Q: Why didn’t you see yourself in teaching?
A:I didn’t like public speaking. Surprisingly, I discovered that I love to teach, to share knowledge and to gain knowledge from the students. I understood that this was more important than my fear of public speaking. Then I decided to pursue the academic career. In fact, I do love the teaching part more than the research part now.


Q: What would you answer Sheryl Sandberg to her quote “What would you do if you weren’t afraid”?
A:Regarding the entrepreneurship idea I could risk more if I were less afraid. But I don’t know – you make me think. However, I am working on my fears, as you can see with the teaching.


QDo you think there was a point in your life where you would have acted or decided differently if you were a man?
A:I wouldn’t know. My experience was always that I could do what I wanted to do. Consequently, I never perceived that there was such a big issue with women in technology. In academia I didn’t experience sexism, discrimination or anything related. However, I think we need to speak to one another, because there are many other people that have had different experiences. I feel that these toxic environments are more present in the industry than in university. Therefore, I think that many women were not granted a free choice in their career paths due to sexist implications.

I think that many women were not granted a free choice in their career paths due to sexist implications.


QHow is it in the university universe – is there anything that could be changed to foster the engagement with tech subjects?
A:It would be good to make the system more flexible in terms of inspiration and the outreach of inspiration campaigns in order to avoid a shortage of workers in technology and foster diverse workers.


QDo you think the tech sector is “a men’s world”?
A: I never thought of the field I am in as something for men only and I cannot name it as such if that is the question. It is a men’s world in the sense that when I attended university I was in the 17 to 20 percent of women there. My faculty was definitely a men’s world in that sense. It was always like that, already when I started my undergraduate program. The women’s quota is always around the 20 percent. Regarding that quota, I can’t see a difference between Germany and Spain.

 At the Female’s Favour{IT}e Conference a girl walked up to me and said: “I wished someone had told me earlier that computer science is that fun”


QHow should we change the style of education to inspire girls more towards the tech field?
A: To attract women to technology we have to start from an early age because that’s when they start feeling that they cannot do “a men’s thing”. In Spain, they started an initiative for women’s day on which scientists and women in tech would go to schools and give a talk on their specific area of research or just science in general. The talks are always adapted to the age of the audience. This is a way to have a women speaking about science to boys and girls in order for them to see that there are also women in science. At the Female’s Favour{IT}e Conference a girl walked up to me and said: “I wished someone had told me earlier that computer science is that fun”. The topic I was speaking about was security – a topic that also enriches society. I think in girls’ minds there somehow technology is not related to society. This is the notion we have to change because with technology we can have great impact on society and on people in many ways. It’s a fact and might not be communicated enough amongst women which can definitely influence their choice of career path.

 With technology we can have great impact on society and on people in many ways.


QHow would the society benefit from women working in tech?
A: I think that we should just strive for diverse environments – diverse in every sense. Women and men have different ways of confronting problems, proposing solutions and communicating them. The combination of strengths of both genders gives better results in any field, not only in technology. This is also the case concerning nationalities. I think that international teams are more productive and more creative because of the difference in perspectives you have access to. When someone with a very different background and perspective presents something to you, you will engage differently because they will propose new thoughts or ideas to you. From these types of communication evolve better ideas.


QIf you’d describe the tech industry with 3 words, what would they be?
A: I think I can find three words to seize everything: creative, collaborative, challenging