Minnesota Law

Spring 2021

Theory at Work

Decrypting Cybersecurity: Professor Alan Rozenshtein Brings Boundless Energy to a Nascent but Sprawling Field

Illustration by: John Jay Cabuay

Cybersecurity has grabbed headlines for years, but among legal scholars it is a small, nascent field, ripe for development by such up-and-comers as Associate Professor Alan Rozenshtein, whose research pursuits keep pace with unfolding news and ubiquitous issues. “I am most interested in the world of large technology companies,” he says. “With cybersecurity, we might think that government plays the primary role, but private companies like Facebook and Google are much more on the front lines than is government. That is unprecedented in modern history.”

Government work had been his goal as a Harvard Law student, but Rozenshtein attributes his burgeoning expertise to a “series of happy accidents” that began on the first day of his first postgraduate job at the U.S. Department of Justice, National Security Division. When asked to choose an area to focus on, he picked cybersecurity. “I figured the internet would remain a big deal, and I was attracted to the technical elements,” he says.

As a field of study, however, cybersecurity “is very much a work in progress.” Although Rozenshtein, who joined the Law School in 2017 as a visiting professor, also teaches constitutional law and criminal procedure, his cybersecurity classes are the ones that break ground. Training cybersecurity lawyers is a challenge because practice areas remain undefined, he explains. “I try to give students a broad perspective. The first few weeks are not about the law at all. They study the underlying technology at a granular level.” While this approach may induce culture shock, it also yields “enthusiastic amateurs” who gain the confidence and analytical ability to learn at a deep level.

“Cybersecurity is a massive, sprawling field except in the law, where everyone is talking about it but no one really knows what it is,” says Professor Gus Hurwitz, co-director of the Space, Cyber, and Telecommunications Law Program at the University of Nebraska. “Alan is someone who understands the technology, knows the economics, and knows the law. He can talk fluently in all those different languages, and that’s rare.”

“With cybersecurity, we might think that government plays the primary role, but private companies like Facebook and Google are much more on the front lines than is government. That is unprecedented in modern history.”
Associate Professor Alan Rozenshtein

According to colleagues, Rozenshtein taps his boundless energy and warm sense of humor to foster connection and engage in broader policy issues in various ways, including writing for Lawfare and organizing such gatherings as the Cybersecurity Law & Policy Scholars Conference. For example, he wrote about surveillance intermediaries for the Stanford Law Review, unpacking the issues inherent in Apple’s refusal to comply with the FBI’s request to unlock a terrorist’s iPhone in the 2015 San Bernardino attack.

”He has the tremendous ability to boil down some of the essential problems in cybersecurity,” says Kate Klonick, assistant professor at St. John’s University School of Law, New York. The ability to upload files and transfer information may enhance freedom and creativity, but the tradeoff is reduced privacy, as governments may use those same mechanisms to surveil users.

When America started shutting down last year, Rozenshtein wondered whether surveillance could help fight the pandemic. But that could trigger Fourth Amendment issues. “He does a great job of exploring how those tensions will play out in reality. He can flesh it all out and see where the dilemma lies,” says Klonick.

The evolving field has proved to be both exciting and challenging. “America’s problem with cybersecurity is that we have the biggest rocks and live in the glassiest houses,” Rozenshtein says. “Our capabilities and even our defenses are ahead of the rest of the world, but we’re also very vulnerable because of our open society. When things happen, we hear about it and all freak out. And when you take everything and attach it to the internet, that is what’s going to happen. Do you really need a smart toothbrush?”

Rozenshtein contends that the pandemic-induced Zoom era has simply accelerated what was already happening. “Every problem is a technical problem, and that is true in law as well. As the digital world touches everything we do all the time, every legal issue has an intersection with technology,” he says. “I’m very optimistic about the future of the field, and very lucky to be a part of it.”

Klonick predicts that Rozenshtein’s scholarship will continue to be widely read, and his role will become “more and more influential as time goes on.” Hurwitz concurs. “We need so many more people doing the work that Alan is doing. He brings so much energy to the field and also understands the importance of organizing, developing, and growing it, which is as important as the individual work he’s doing. I wish there were a hundred of him.”

Cathy Madison is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.