Where is privacy going?

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.

Edward Snowden and <a href=

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.

Returning to the Cosmos

Tonight at 9pm is the premier of the reboot of Cosmos, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. It’s been 33 years since the original Cosmos was aired on PBS.

That was quite a sequence of years for science: the year before, in 1979, the Voyager spacecrafts flew by Jupiter; in 1980 and 81 they flew by Saturn. In that low-tech pre-Internet age, an incredible thing happened: PBS stations across the US opened their doors to allow people to come in and view the live feed from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, hosted by Carl Sagan himself. After school, I took the bus to the Maine Public Broadcasting studios on the UMaine campus where my mother worked. The feeds from JPL were made available by direct satellite link, a feat which felt futuristic at the time.

In real time, 13-year-old me watched as the first images of the rings of Jupiter, and the moons of Saturn were returned to Earth at a speed roughly equivalent to the modems we would be using for dialup Internet access a decade later. How amazing that we could accomplish such a feat – never before had mankind been witness to acts of discovery such as this in real time across our solar system.

Jim Blinn's computer rendering of Saturn for the Cosmos TV Series.

Jim Blinn’s computer rendering of Saturn for the Cosmos TV Series — one of the first computer graphics ever produced for television.

There is no small amount of irony that the new Cosmos is airing on Fox Television. It is even perhaps a greater irony that in the 80s Cold War era, we were more focused on science than we are today. Today, members of the US Congress regularly espouse a disbelief in evolution and natural selection, and display scorn for the scientific process as a whole. But how are we going to advance as a species without science? Does it take the us-versus-them mentality to really make it happen?

Tyson was a student of Sagan’s, and will bring his own style to the show. But he is bringing back the Cosmic Calendar and the Spaceship of the Imagination, and for that I am grateful. I am hopeful that it will renew, if only for a moment, the sense of amazing discovery that the original series did when it first aired.

And if we need another sense of renewal, the entire original series is available on YouTube. It still stands the test of time.