When it comes to summer internships in DC, Shaanan Cohney is a repeat customer. Having spent last summer as a cyber security fellow in the office of Senator Ron Wyden, Shaanan decided to give DC another go, this time as an intern with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). “My main job is to work on the strategic direction when it comes to technology and, more specifically, computer security,” he tells us. “The news is full of the FTC’s big cases, and concern from consumers. It’s the right time to do some planning around these issues and That’s my job.” We discuss his time with the FTC, night walks around the Capital, and more in his summer profile.
What areas of public policy interest you?
I do a lot of work with technology policy, but within that, my focus is on computer security and cryptography. More recently I’ve been dabbling in the interplay between cryptography and contract law. It may not seem obvious at first, but there is a lot of meat there. I’ve spent my summers bringing what I’ve done at Penn, both at the Law School and Engineering, into branches of government I have been working with.
What does a typical day in DC look like for you?
I’m actually working fairly hard this summer. I get up at a reasonable hour (8 am), grab a yogurt from the fridge, and am off to work by 9. The FTC has two campuses, so I often stop by the headquarters first and chat with the Director of the Office of Public Policy to figure out what things look like for the day, and then I’m off to the Constitution Center, where all the interns are. Normally I work right up until lunch and then take a moment to chat with the law clerks, economists, or other intern technologists. I then work on writing strategy memos for the rest of the day. After, it’s either off to a PPI event or working on my dissertation. I’ve been a regular attendee of the PPI dinners. They’ve probably been my favorite part of the summer. When I get home, I work on my dissertation until as late in the morning as I can, rinse, and repeat.
Have there been any surprises regarding living and working as an intern in DC?
I think one thing to note is just how nice people are at the FTC. DC has a bit of a reputation for being a town full of ambitious people who don’t stop for anyone, and I think, at the FTC, that’s really not true. People here are always looking out for each other and trying to help others advance in whatever they’re doing. They even just come up in the corridor and smile and say hi, which is really lovely.
Name one object that you brought with you to DC that reflects your personality.
This year I brought with me locksmithing tools. One thing that security researchers must always keep in mind, is that threats are not just digital, they’re physical too. By tinkering with locks, and access control systems, I learn both about how to protect from direct attacks on physical infrastructure, but also improve my attacker-mindset. Learning to think like the bad-guys is something that’s always been a part of my character, and training in some of the skills they might use is an important component of that.
In 10 years, what will you remember about living and working in DC?
While the FTC is independent, it has political appointees from both parties, so it’s interesting to note where the disagreements arise, but also where people can really work together despite ideological differences. Consumer protection is a really nice place for that and is also a good paradigm through which to work through a lot of difficult issues. It’s not like other parts of the DC political landscape where you’re really fighting for the “right” way to do something. There’s a lot more discussion and dialogue here, and that’s really valuable.
Give an example of an experience that signifies why you came to DC.
I was at first inclined to just drive through my PhD this summer, but there were a couple of professors who said that this was one of the only chances I’d get to reimagine myself and my work, and particularly that the FTC was a place where I could see something different about the way the world works. I’m so used to being ‘the academic’ who designs and evaluates the factory, and now I’m in the factory itself, and that’s really great insight for someone who intends to try and make policy impact through research. It’s like seeing the whole picture instead of just one part. While I can’t claim to have seen it all yet, this adds one more piece.
What is one tourist attraction or thing outside of work that you are excited about?
Honestly, I just really like walking around DC late at night, when everyone else has gone home. Seeing the landmarks and architecture in the quiet is something that I really love to do. Whether that’s walking by the White House, the Washington Monument, or some of the court houses, there’s a kind of solemnity and grand majesty that you can experience in that liminal space between nightfall and day.
What does being an intern in DC mean to you?
While I love my research and teaching, time in DC really gives me an opportunity to give back to a country that has honestly given me a lot over the past seven years. It’s really fulfilling to come to DC and give back at a very high level; to not only do my small community piece but to really drive the direction of the country. Even as just an intern, I feel like I can help steer the ship in the right way.