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Conference notes – CFP 2009

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Sitting in the audience at the Computers, Freedom and Privacy 2009 conference (wiki, Twitter stream, blog, ustream live broadcast) today, I’ve heard several speakers try to discuss how privacy relates to concepts like national security, surveillance, information security and Web 2.0 applications. At the core of each discussion is an ongoing (some would say never-ending) debate: does privacy come at the expense of this other “X” element?

In effect, will we have to trade some of the impact, the effectiveness, or the positive gains of (in one case) Web 2.0 innovations in order to maintain contemporary privacy protections?

Some Web 2.0 advocates question whether privacy advocates (like us) are reflecting the needs or desires of actual users when we argue for privacy protections and strict data protection regimes.

Peter Swire, an Ohio State University professor and former privacy official in the Clinton administration, made the blunt observation today that:

” … the Web 2.0 movement is opposed to the privacy movement … they don’t ‘get’ privacy as central or moral a purpose as people who have been coming to [this conference] … “

You see, the Web 2.0 movement favours the greater and wider distribution of information. Access to more information is empowering. The assumption is that a more transparent and communicative society (especially government) will lead to more representative government and increased democratic participation (if only in issues of particular relevance to individual voters).

Privacy advocates, on the other hand, have long maintained that minimizing access to data is the best way to safeguard data and personal privacy. It’s not necessarily locking every piece of data in a secure box, but certainly making sure each individual has a close eye on the keys to the box containing their own information.

On a different panel, Bruce Schneier, the noted security commentator, noted that “in the New World, there will be more information, but it will not be fair.” He drew a distinction about who is required to disclose data or personal information: the government or the individual citizen.

” … open government laws enforce liberty … forcing transparency in principle enforces control …”

Sunshine legislation may open government to be more accountable for its actions. Increased information collection about individuals, whether through surveillance, through interception, interrogation or simply through increased identification requirements, could lead to more restrictions on how that individual leads their life.

Is there any reason to fear that a largely transparent society, built upon the energy and optimism of innovators like Web 2.0 developers, could produce an environment where individuals are more exposed, perhaps to monitoring, surveillance and control?

As I mentioned, these are ongoing debates. Bruce Schneier injected a dose of reality during his comments:

” … data is the pollution problem of the information age … [today, we ] look back to the Industrial Age and wonder how they dealt with all that pollution …”

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