Scholar Spotlight | SMU Senior Spends Semester on Project for AT&T

Highland Capital Management Tower Scholar Zach Miller ’19 conducted his senior year practicum for the Tower Scholars Program at AT&T. He graduates Dec. 15 with a degree in economics and a minor through the Tower Scholars Program in public policy and international affairs. We talked to him about his work for AT&T and his time at SMU.

What were you working on while at AT&T?

During my practicum I mostly focused on one particular issue: data privacy. I was tasked with studying the issue at a state level because state legislatures are looking to fill this policy hole that exists because Congress has done nothing more than hold hearings on the issue — which I guess is better than nothing. But with the midterm elections, there were bound to be some changes in partisan power across some important states, so I was responsible for researching both the policy and the politics of the issue and assessing how the midterms might affect the legislative outlook for these bills in legislatures across the country.

What area of policy is AT&T interested in?

Well, I can’t speak for AT&T, but the CEO has repeatedly called for an “Internet Bill of Rights” which includes “net neutrality, transparency, openness, non-discrimination, and privacy protection.” This might be news to some, but yes — AT&T genuinely favors net neutrality, and they are not shy about that, despite what some news outlets with agendas might have you believe.

What role does the private sector have in the policymaking process?

I think the question should be “What role doesn’t the private sector have in the process?” — to which the answer would be, “Voting, signing, and vetoing.” In all seriousness, though, they are involved at almost every step along the way. Why? It’s nothing more nor less than a business investment. Public policy decisions — and not just those made by Congress, but also the states and regulatory agencies and municipalities (the list goes on) — affect companies’ bottom lines. The private sector believes that by influencing public policy they will generate a greater return in the long run than if they didn’t spend to do so at all.

What was your favorite aspect of the Tower Scholars Program?

One of the best parts of the program is how real the topics are that we learn about. For the Junior Year Seminar, my cohort focused on science and technology, but more specifically we talked a lot about artificial intelligence (AI). I’ve grown up during this tech boom — I was entering high school when the second AI winter was coming to an end — and that helped me realize my interest in these technologies and their applications, as well as the policy consequences that will come with them.

What are your plans for after graduation?

I’ll be spending just two more semesters here to finish my Master of Science in Applied Economics and Predictive Analytics. During that time, I will also be doing research in the computer science department using deep learning to detect anomalies in sensor data in real-time. Deep learning, as an aside for those who don’t know, is a subset of AI, but most references to “AI” fall under the category of deep learning. The research grant is funded by a federal agency, so the policy implications of something like this are incredibly clear and the public stands to benefit immensely from new technologies and algorithms of this sort. This is just further evidence that public policy touches everything, and reaffirms the need for the Tower Scholars Program and graduates who have a knowledge of those dynamics and the implications for entities and individuals alike.

Read more about Zach from our blog:

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SMU Tower Scholar is knee-deep in the business of politics as election season heats up