Florian Kerschbaum, University of Waterloo

Dr. Florian Kerschbaum’s research develops methods to protect data while still allowing it to be processed efficiently. His contributions range from encryption schemes enabling complex queries on encrypted data, over foundational techniques for optimized compilation of secure computation to applications such as privacy in the smart grid.

Kerschbaum has consistently published in leading academic venues and his students have won international awards such as the ACM SIGSAC dissertation award. He was designated as the NSERC/RBC chair in data security, was recognized as an ACM Distinguished Scientist, and served as the inaugural Director of the Waterloo Cybersecurity and Privacy Institute.

An interest that started at a young age

Kerschbaum’s interest in computer science started as a child. Growing up in Germany, like other kids his age, he wanted to play games on a commodore. His father’s reluctance to pay for a name brand led Kerschbaum to discover programming.

“Of course my father bought something completely obscure, so the only chance to play games was if I programmed my own. So I learned to program games. And I got better and better at it. Then my father was happy to support me by buying better computers.”

After learning C from a book and Pascal from articles and magazines, by the time Kerschbaum reached university, he could program in more languages than the graduates of the program. His program at university focused on business, but he did take computer science courses over the course of his studies.

“I got straight Bs in all of my business classes and straight A+ in all of my computer science classes.”

From the corporate world to academia and back again

After graduating, Kerschbaum began a career in sales.

“I was extremely bad at that. They were really nice to me, but they realized, I couldn’t do it. I knew I wanted to do more — something more technical. I knew that Germany would not recognize my degree, and I would have to start at day zero. However, if I went to the US and applied for a Masters program, they would fully accept my education as the equivalent to a bachelor degree.”

Kerschbaum was accepted at Purdue. Although his professor, Mikhail Atallah, encouraged him to pursue his PhD, Kerschbaum had other plans in mind.

“I was not really ready because I wanted to travel the US. I had made a whole bunch of international friends at Purdue — I was in a good place, and it wasn’t in my plan to do my PhD.”

After working with Atallah on a project that became a start up, Kerschbaum realized it was time to pursue his PhD.

“I was 30. I was really old. I had to think about how I was going to do it. In Germany, lots of companies will have you do a PhD while working. I ended up at SAP and was fortunate to have a manager who took me under his wing. He told me, ‘we want our PhD students to do what we want, but I can see you have ideas of your own. You’re going to do your projects because they are publicly funded projects and they have to go well, but I also want you to work on your own projects, and I will support you.”

Kerschbaum stayed at SAP for 10 years and brought applied cryptography and later on Differential Privacy to the company. After a change in management and project cuts, he recognized it was time for a change. Kerschbaum taught throughout his time at SAP, but now he was interested in full time teaching and research. A friend from Purdue encouraged him to apply to the University of Waterloo, and he had an offer within weeks.

Looking to the future

Kerschbaum is focusing his research on problems that will be with us for the next 10-20 years.

“As we move into an age of big data, everyone is collecting data and looking for ways to exploit it. We have crossed lines in a lot of ways, like tracking on the web and sharing data in ways we cannot control. We need to find a balance between what is socially acceptable and put into norms and regulations, so we reach maximum benefit. We need ways of dealing with the data in a secure and privacy-preserving manner. Technology has a crucial role to play in this.”

Recognizing his mentors

As Kerschbaum reflects on being recognized as an Outstanding Young Researcher, he credits his many managers and mentors who took him under the wings. From his father, Peter Kerschbaum who supported his early curiosity to Mikhail Atallah, his professor at Purdue, Orestis Terzidis, his manager at SAP, and his PhD supervisors, Jörn Müller-Quade and Günter Müller.

“I’m very grateful for the support I’ve received. I feel very honoured by the award and appreciate that CS-Can recognizes early career researchers. By providing recognition at this point in a career, it is a great stepping stone for the future.”

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