Editor’s note: It takes all kinds of people to deliver the identity theft protection services you’ve come to expect from LifeLock. Behind the scenes, you’ll find the amazing science, technology and data-crunching capabilities of ID Analytics. Among the folks there, our chief analytics and science officer, Stephen Coggeshall, Ph.D. Scroll down on this page to find his bio. It’s impressive enough to be intimidating, but turns out, “Dr. C.” as he’s known around the office, is an approachable, down-to-earth scientist with a great sense of humor. Learning that, we decided to throw a few questions his way to better understand the man and what he does.
Your title, chief analytics and science officer, is quite a mouthful. What exactly do you do?
I’m the one responsible for the deep analytics across the company. LifeLock acquired ID Analytics in 2012 to give it the ability to apply advanced analytics to large data streams. And that’s exactly what we started ID Analytics to do. We build and maintain teams of world-class, Ph.D.-level mathematicians and scientists who excel in big data analytics. My role is to assemble and maintain that team of people—task balancing on the management side, mentoring, and helping establish the appropriate culture that attracts and retains the best people. A big part of my work is defining that culture of innovation that allows curiosity to thrive and promotes the hard work and communication that enables us to solve problems. We compete with the best companies for talent. I have to do the things that give my team enough time to let them do the research and development we need. And while I know how to solve problems, it’s my job to give them the problems and get out of the way, to let them do the excellent inventive work they enjoy.
ID Analytics is a leader in identity risk management. We make decisions where identity is an important part of the equation, including fraud and credit risk. For example, from a fraud perspective, when presented with fragments of information—say, the last name and last four digits of a phone number—we can figure out who that person is. We are authorities on identity, and we build tools for businesses to solve risk management problems. Whether it’s a mobile phone company handing over a $800 smartphone or a financial institution making a loan, that business wants to know with a certain amount of confidence that the person they’re giving it to is who she says she is—and our data analysis gives them, almost instantly, the information they need to determine that.
What’s the best part of your job?
The best part of what I do is solving intractable business problems. The most fun I have is when we’re given a business problem with large, complex data flows that’s never been solved before. And we get to solve it! When a business presents such a problem to us, with their difficult data and constraints, we often determine that the problem they have is really just a subset of a larger problem. It’s fun to help them see the bigger picture and take the thinking—and our solution—to the next level, having more of an impact than they expected.
How do you reconcile the fact that advances in technology enable us to detect and fight fraud better than we otherwise could, while, at the same time, those same advances also give “the bad guys” more tools to commit fraud?
As technology evolves, consumers are able to do more and more things in a remote setting—banking, shopping, communication, you name it. The more enabled we are, the more fraud is possible. Almost any engagement that you can enable, you can find ways to abuse it. We’re constantly moving forward on both fronts. More engagements equal more fraud. That means some of the problems we face today didn’t even exist a few years ago, fraud over mobile, for instance, and synthetic identity—when a criminal “creates” a new identity by combining personal identifiable information from more than one person.
What is it about big data and fraud that interests you?
It’s a completely exciting field, and I’m very passionate about it. The world is more connected than it’s ever been. There are sensors everywhere, allowing cars, thermostats, even refrigerators to have IP addresses. As a result, there’s more data flying around everywhere, and you need sophisticated analytics to make sense of it. Big data analysis is everywhere, not just in identity analytics. It’s used in bioinformatics, drug discovery and DNA sequencing. In fact, it’s always existed. 20 years ago, a credit card company asked my company to analyze all the details of their 30 million card portfolio—from card use to bill payments to late payments—over a 10-year period. It was an intractable problem. Just reading the data once took a week of computer time. When faced with a problem like that you have to do things a completely different way. There have always been problems that require cutting-edge approaches. And I see unlimited growth in this field. (Editor’s note to 13-year-old son: Computer science, programming and mathematics. There’s your future job. And I know this guy, Steve!)
Given the growth of identity theft, do you worry about how much of your own personal identifiable information is “out there”?
Yes, and no. As far as social information and reputation, I’m not that worried. Finding myself on LinkedIn or Facebook or in newspaper articles doesn’t bother me. I’m more concerned about particular personal information with which someone can abuse my identity—my Social Security number, account numbers or date of birth. I am concerned about that. When I interact online or on the phone and someone asks for my Social Security number or my date of birth, there’s a switch in my head that automatically prompts me to think, “Do I really know who you are? Do you really need this information? Is this transmission secure? What are you doing to do with this information?”
Computer technology has changed incredibly since you earned your first degree in 1979. What’s the most amazing aspect of that to you, and why?
There are several aspects of changing technology that build on each other: hardware technology; sophisticated software and algorithms and ability to do more and more object-oriented complex tasks; and ubiquitous data. When you combine these you get explosive leaps in capabilities.
How does a “propeller head”—if you’ll accept the term—have fun? What are your hobbies?
Professionally, I have fun through technical problem solving and leading very smart people. I have a passion for these super-intelligent people. Outside of work, my biggest hobby is music. I have a degree in music, and I conduct orchestras and choirs, something I’ve been doing for 30 years. Right now I conduct a church choir here in San Diego. (Editor’s note: Steve has a total of five college degrees: bachelor’s degrees in mathematics & physics and music; master’s degrees in nuclear engineering and music; and a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering.)
Let’s get back to our business. What do you tell friends and family members about how to protect themselves against identity theft?
I tell them to protect their important personal information—their Social Security number, date of birth and account numbers—and to be skeptical and cautious about giving out that information. I recommend that they shred any documents that have that information and to be careful about writing such numbers down. Be cautious about mail coming into and going out of the house, so that thieves don’t get hold of it and the information that’s in it. Watch their credit card and bank statements for unusual charges or withdrawals. And finally, consider subscribing to an identity theft protection company, such as LifeLock.