Conference Explores Privacy Issues in an Increasingly Connected Society

Privacy June 13th, 2013

, Reporter, Broadband Census News

WASHINGTON, June 13, 2013 – Most Americans have a negative view of data gathering and feel that they have little control over what information is available to businesses and the government, according to a poll released Thursday by Allstate and National Journal-Heartland Monitor.

However, many Americans also recognize the benefits, including connecting with friends and receiving personalized information about products and services of interest.

The implications of the poll were discussed at a conference here on privacy in the internet age.

In the first of two keynote interviews, former Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz spoke on the importance of protecting consumers from unwanted data gathering. Designing devices that allow the user to prevent the use of cookies to track activity was a high priority for Leibowitz.

“The most promising opportunity is technology that will allow consumers to protect their own privacy,” he said.

Leibowitz made the distinction between first-party entities that use data to provide users with benefits and third-party entities that track users without their knowledge or consent. For example, trusted sites such as Amazon and Netflix use data to make recommendations to users, but other sites secretly use cookies to track activity.

The second keynote speaker, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., also spoke of empowering consumers to protect themselves.

“What we need to make certain is that our constituents have the ability to protect their ‘virtual you,’ as I call it,” she said.

Blackburn laid out two important steps consumers should take to facilitate the creation of more acceptable environment. Consumers should be sure to read any privacy agreements, and they should engage with companies to help the industry come forward with a set of privacy standards. Despite this emphasis on standards created within the industry, she also noted that Congress is likely to consider privacy legislation in the near future.

The event concluded with a discussion among a panel of experts on a number of privacy-related topics including government transparency, the recent revelations regarding National Security Agency information gathering, and the trade-offs between privacy and social benefits.

Nigel Jacob, board member of Code for America and co-chair of the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, described how his work toward transparency had produced numerous benefits in Boston. He asserted that this transparency had enabled public-private partnerships, built trust, and helped drive community unity.

Marc Rotenberg, president and executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information, had a number of sharp criticisms for the NSA. He questioned the constitutionality of the data gathering under the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits the unreasonable seizing of information. The NSA’s defense of their actions has also been weak due to the use of anecdotal evidence which supports their argument rather than comprehensive statistics that would show the actual effectiveness of the program.

“There are a lot of ways to promote accountability through the publication of statistics,” Rotenberg said.

The panelists also discussed trade-offs that could be made of privacy for social benefits, such as the use of medical records for research purposes.

Evan Selinger, associate professor of philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, noted that such issues often carry disproportionate weight in the privacy debate, silencing privacy advocates who fear being labeled as opponents of progress. Rotenberg argued that the idea of trade-offs presented a false dichotomy, and that people can maintain their privacy while still benefitting from applications of data.

“I think we need to raise our expectations that we can enjoy the benefits of technology and enjoy privacy,” he said.

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