Student spotlight: Lily (Zimeng) Liu

Lily Liu

Lily (Zimeng) Liu graduated this year with a bachelor's in international relations with honors. Below, she shares why she decided to pursue her degree program, the topic of her honors thesis, and her plans following graduation.

Why did you choose to major in international relations? What was your area of study/focus?

As someone who has grown up in Beijing and identifies as a third-culture kid—individuals who have spent formative years in more than one country—I have always been fascinated by different cultural and political viewpoints as well as relationship-building across countries. Model UN in high school also inspired my interests in immigration, cyber warfare, and climate adaptation, so I was eager to learn more about these issues in college. I remember sitting down during freshman summer and mapping out a few versions of my “four-year plans,” and classes on my IR plan just excited me way more than others. Being able to take classes from a variety of disciplines (feminist and gender studies, science, technology and society, sociology, education, etc.) is really important to me, and the IR department’s flexibility offers great opportunities to explore. Within IR, I specialize in World Economy and Social Development and Human Well-Being.

What is the title of your IR honors thesis? Why did you choose this topic? What were your findings?

My honors thesis is titled “‘Not Just a Barcode’: A Descriptive Analysis of Data Privacy Protection for Refugees Resettling in the United States.” I initially wanted to study the variations of refugee integration policy, but a Privacy International article discussing extensive surveillance of migrants and a Human Rights Watch report that exposed UNHCR’s sharing Rohingya refugees’ biometrics data with Myanmar government—the very government persecuting these individuals—made me realize the importance of discovering and evaluating the data privacy risks of refugees, which is often overlooked.

Data privacy for refugees are especially important not only because refugees face more life-threatening risks from privacy breaches, but also because refugees are often more prone to coerced consent due to the lack of social capital, language barriers, and power imbalance. Studying the intersection of refugee rights and data governance, two issue areas that I feel most passionate about, felt really exciting. My research adds to the literature by evaluating how different actors — the U.S. government, nonprofits, and international organizations— protect refugees’ data privacy differently during refugee resettlement in the U.S.

Through both policy analyses and interviews with 23 refugees and practitioners, I found that federal government actors are most responsible for significant data privacy violations against resettled refugees, while international organizations have the most robust data privacy regulations. The lack of legal guarantee for refugees’ data privacy rights, meaningful barriers to informed consent, and over-retention of sensitive personal data present the most significant regulatory vulnerabilities. Unauthorized data access without consent, data security breaches, and inaccessibility of complaint systems comprise the most severe data privacy violations against U.S. resettled refugees in practice. Interviews with refugees also suggest that power dynamics and lack of language accessibility create meaningful barriers that prevent refugees from objecting to unwanted information disclosure.

Why did you decide to apply for the IR honors program? Why would you encourage other students to participate in the program?

Although I did not initially plan on writing a thesis, witnessing my friend Emily Bishko’s growth through the honors program motivated me to also pursue my original research. This decision fortunately led to the most academically and socially rewarding experience of my Stanford career. Not only did I grow tremendously as a qualitative researcher, trauma-informed interviewer (all the trainings I underwent both for the IRB application and on the job), policy analyst (learned how to develop a codebook from scratch!) and refugee issue/data privacy scholar, I also learned to stay resilient and be kind to myself even during difficult times, thanks to support of my IR honors classmates.

The experience of interviewing refugees and practitioners truly humbled me and enlightened me on the nuances and complexity of privacy protection during humanitarian missions in practice. Even though the thesis process can be stressful at times, I felt purposeful and passionate exploring this meaningful topic. For future students: if you want to grow as a scholar and writer (or ethnographer, data scientist…whichever research methods you use!), dive deeply into a topic that you are passionate about, find a strong community, and apply for the IR honors program! It may seem daunting at first, but Dr. Gould and your classmates will support you in breaking this project down into smaller bits along the way.

How has your degree program changed your understanding of the world and prepared you for your next steps?

After taking classes in economic sociology, feminist gender studies, tech policy, Latin American politics (just naming a few), I have a much more nuanced view of human connections and drivers of social change. I’ve learned that different kinds of scholars can see the same problem through different lens. While an economist may explain social interactions through models and abstractions, a sociologist adds more nuance by accounting for cultural norms and social psychological forces. I think this kind of interdisciplinary thinking and wide exposure to different political systems and cultural values throughout my IR coursework prepared me well to dissect complex social systems connecting philanthropy or privacy advocacy work in different regions of the world. My adaptability and ability to learn quickly would be a great asset to building trust with different stakeholders.

What are your plans after graduation?

Next year, I will be completing my co-terminal master’s degree in sustainability science and practice at Stanford. After graduation, I hope to either continue in my work as a social sector consultant for philanthropies and nonprofits working on sustainability and education issues, or apply for public service fellowships in digital human rights organizations like Privacy International and AccessNow.