Hira Siddiqui is the overall winner of Telekom's Women's STEM Award 2021 with her thesis at Dresden University of Technology. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In this interview, the software expert talks about her master's idea and what advice she has for other women.
Ms. Siddiqui, congratulations on your first place! What does the award mean to you?
Hira Siddiqui: Thank you, I am very happy and feel confirmed that I am doing the right thing. It's an important award that gives visibility to women in STEM fields. It's absolutely necessary. It puts my idea in the spotlight, and that's also close to my heart. It makes it easier for me to get in touch with professionals and further exchange ideas with them about my topic.
The idea for which you have developed the concept and software in your thesis already has a name: "Credentials as a Service". What is it about?
Siddiqui: Self-souvereign identity. With the European General Data Protection Regulation, there is increasing focus, at least in Europe, on what personal data large companies are storing. Not least massive data scandals, such as by passing on data to third parties - have led to this trend.
"Self-souvereign identity" means that users of digital services - be it shopping or social media - will decide for themselves in the future what happens to their data?
Siddiqui: Yes. And the idea is that only they can see the data they use to access services - not the providers themselves. They themselves determine what data they share and what it's used for. In Europe, governments are very keen to see this approach developed further. The same applies to companies. Because if I, as a company, don't have access to my customers' data, I have less effort to secure it and I don't have to face penalties in the millions.
Yes, if I had just founded a start-up and made a data mistake or the customer’s data got leaked ... that would probably be the end of my project.
Siddiqui: That's right. Large companies have the resources and infrastructure to develop and deploy solutions for Self-Sovereign Identity. But the smaller companies have minimal resources and such solutions can become very expensive for them. And if they do not implement proper security mechanisms to protect user’s privacy, and the customer’s data gets leaked, they can face fines in the millions.
And that’s where your project comes in.
Siddiqui: Yes, a Cloud Service for Self-Sovereign Identity known as Credentials as a Service, shortly CaaS. Companies would simply buy this solution as a cloud service, and issue credentials to their clients, without the need to maintain infrastructure on their own. Moreover, it would be computationally impossible for the Cloud Provider to see what data is being processed inside the service. This is because we have used a special hardware technology known as “Trusted Execution Environments”. In this way, Small Medium Enterprises – SMEs - and startups can be ensured that the privacy of their client’s data is computationally guaranteed, and they can also enjoy the benefits of cloud like “Pay per use” and “On demand scalability”. That would be less costly as compare to the present solutions.
Who could offer your solution to startups and small and medium-sized enterprises?
Siddiqui: This solution can be deployed in a Cloud Service Provider, for example Open Telekom Cloud. The advantages of the idea are obvious: Companies book the service - and save themselves servers and IT staff, with which they would manage the access data and all other personal data. Take an online store or a bike rental company in the city, for example. They could use it to launch their business quickly and easily. And, above all, securely. The data is processed in the cloud but stored only in the user’s wallet on the users’ devices, for example their smartphone. And the proof that this data is correct and legitimate comes from the blockchain.
Your field of expertise at TU Dresden is “Distributed Systems Engineering”. A subfield of that is blockchain. And that has been your hobbyhorse for a long time, even when you were still studying software engineering in Pakistan. As a layman, I'll try to put it in a nutshell: chains of data records that - stored on many computers - ensure that each data record can be uniquely assigned and can never be falsified ...
Siddiqui: Roughly speaking ... 😊 I've been interested in this topic for years. At my university, I was fascinated by a guest lecture on this topic given by a professor from the USA. I pestered him with my questions. A long dialogue ensued, even after his return to the States. The topic did not let me go. I continued to educate myself in my spare time. Then I offered blockchain programming on a freelance platform - alongside my first job at an IT company. First alone, then with several, as there were soon over 80 international projects. A crazy time. At the same time, the desire to develop myself further grew ...
... which led you to the master's program at TU Dresden - and into the blockchain team at Deutsche Telekom subsidiary T-Systems MMS. Initially as a working student and permanently since April 2021. This team implements blockchain business models for its customers. What does that mean to you?
Siddiqui: I am very happy about it. For a long time, permanent positions in this new technology were few and far between. Now I have arrived, so to speak. And I feel integrated into the team from day one. What's more, my colleagues have made me feel that my voice and experience count. I have a strong sense of support. That makes me very self-confident. I have a voice in my job. This is especially important for us women in technical professions. We often feel rather alone and on our own in our careers because women are few in numbers in this field.
How do you mean that?
Siddiqui: It starts with society giving us a choice: Motherhood or career. Many perceive that as set, even bad, when both come together. In many countries, this prevents women from having a career. But it works very well to take on both roles. And although all people are equipped with the same brains, it is difficult for women to get a leg up in male-dominated technical professions. That influences career choices.
What shaped your decisions?
Siddiqui: Fortunately, my parents encouraged my childhood penchant for technical toys like remote-controlled cars and helicopters - and for math. They also taught me that I should do what I do particularly well. And that I can always trust myself to do more. Last but not least, I was very lucky that people always supported me on my way. I am very grateful for that.
You discovered the world of software early on and even developed apps, such as one for carpooling.
Siddiqui: I'm fascinated by the fact that excellent software can reach millions of people. That sooner or later it can be used to realize anything the imagination can come up with. And that as many different people as possible have to work together so that applications don't flop. A simple example: Around eight percent of all men and 0.4 percent of all women are color blind. If you don't take this into account during development, your applications may fail later on. Good software is inclusive: so software has a lot to do with creativity and empathy.
What advice do you have for other young women when it comes to making career decisions?
Siddiqui: Don't ignore the technical professions. They open up great, fascinating worlds for you. You can do it! Be brave, be your own cheerleaders! And take other women as role models. In Germany, for example, Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is a physicist by education. And if there are no role models, take it upon yourselves to become role models. We all have to work together to change old ways of thinking.
Now you are a MINT Award winner and thus a role model yourself ...
Siddiqui: ... which makes me even prouder. I really hope that I can motivate other women. There is such an infinite amount of talent out there, and so much of it untapped. But this potential must not be lost.