Harvard’s Institute for Advanced Computational Sciences held their 4th annual symposium on the future of computation and science in engineering. This year’s theme was Privacy in a Networked World. The major attraction was a discussion between Edward Snowden, ex-NSA employee and source of the recent leaked internal NSA top secret documents, and Bruce Schneier, security and cryptography expert and Harvard Berkman fellow.
While very exciting, the discussion didn’t yield much new information. Snowden has yielded judgments about publication of the leaked information to the press, and wouldn’t be drawn out by Schneider regarding any new revelations. There was a small amount of drama, as the second speaker of the day was John DeLong, former Director of Compliance at the NSA, and Harvard alum. DeLong deserves credit for being the designated javelin catcher of the day — probably the only one at the NSA at this point willing to go on the circuit — and took on the role with reasonable good humor. That being said, despite his theme of the need to engender a discussion about privacy, his talk was virtually content-free and came off as rather disingenuous. In reality, there probably wasn’t much he could say between issues of classification and the review process that his remarks would have to have gone through. You can see Schneier interview Snowden here.
The most interesting facts came from the most prosaic and unexpected source: a presentation by Lee Rainie, Director of Internet, Science and Technology Research at the Pew Research Center. This recently completed study shows trends that push against the conventional wisdom that young internet-savvy people are willing to sell their privacy to the next service that comes along, and maintain a position of diffidence to privacy overall.
In the 18-to-29 age bracket, the majority think that the government has gone too far in restricting civil liberties, that the press is correct in reporting on government data collection efforts, and disapprove of overall government phone and internet data collection efforts. This breaks sharply with the 30-and-above cohorts (making me an outlier by most any measure!).
Rainie buries the lede in one more interesting way. On slide 30, the study shows what things users actively try to avoid on the internet. Leading the list is the obvious two: hackers and advertisers at 33% and 28% respectively. To drive this home – the study is saying that a significant number of people have taken steps to conceal their actions from these classes of actors. But more surprising is the next five categories, comprising 80% of users: “Certain friends”, “People from your past”, “People who might harass you”, “Family members or romantic partners”, and “Employers, supervisors, or coworkers”. The survey allows for multiple membership in the categories, but it is unlikely that these statistics represent one hyper-paranoid individual. And it also shows that the adage that you only need privacy if you have something to hide is, ironically, true: we all have something to hide, and attempt to hide it.
What this tells me, at least, is that on one front the news about the function of privacy on the internet – on all levels – is winning the PR war in the real world over those who say it is a non-issue. Ironically, the same day this talk was taking place, another group of Harvard researchers were reclaiming the “Death of Privacy” at Davos in Switzerland. The Pew figures show that while this might be technically true in the short term, it may not be so in the long run.