Is Privacy Overhyped? A Panel Discusses

"My fear is that we have entered a true and gigantic surveillance state and we don't even know it."

From left to right: Mr. Morozov, Mr. Soghoian, Ms. Lammert, Ms. Yakowitz and Mr. Greeley.

Spoiler: an Open Society Foundation panel on privacy last night did not come to a conclusion on the question at hand, “Is Privacy Overhyped?” The full title, “Four Views of Technology, Security, and Democracy Online,” revealed that answering the question was not the goal. Scaremongering and provoking confrontations was. Just kidding! It was very interesting.

A distinguished panel discussed the positive and negative implications of the mounting pile of data on regular people available to corporations and the government before an audience of journalist students, techies, engaged citizens and even the hacker Jacob Appelbaum, notorious for his privacy advocacy and work on the Tor project, a system that enables anonymity on the Internet.

The panel included Elaine Lammert, who took some heat as deputy general counsel in the investigative law branch of the FBI; Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom and a well-known writer and scholar; Jane Yakowitz, a visiting assistant professor at Brooklyn Law School and author of “Tragedy of the Data Commons;” and Chris Soghoian, whose bio bills him as “among the leading privacy activists in the United States,” and who created a prototype for the “Do Not Track” technology packed into browsers.

Brendan Greeley, a staff writer for Businessweek, moderated. “Privacy issues are going to to coming up in the news for the next 30 years and you’re going to have to make decisions about it,” he said, opening the discussion.

The conversation wandered a bit around the utility of massive data sets, which is Ms. Yakowitz’s concern. Large, anonymized data sets produce useful insights, like getting the death penalty abolished in Connecticut after a racial bias was revealed, she said. Her fear is that companies and governments are withholding data by using privacy as an excuse, and that people are withholding more of their own data out of fear even though the risk of being “reidentified” by your data is rare and “practically zero.”

“If we pool our information together, we can learn much more about all of us,” she said.

The discussion turned quickly, however, to how far citizens can trust the government. Law enforcement have access to an unprecedented level of data, Mr. Soghoian argued, and cell phones are the main culprit. Carriers were getting so many requests for data that they automated the process, he said. Sprint got eight million requests in just over a year. “My fear is that we have entered a true and gigantic surveillance state and we don’t even know it,” he said.

The government still has to follow due process to get its information, Ms. Lammert said, arguing that as technology advances, so must law enforcement.

Mr. Morozov rounded off the discussion with some perspective on how the privacy debate changes when it’s a domestic versus an international debate. While the government argues for more surveillance at home, it simultaneously defends the rights of Iranian dissidents, for example. “We keep treating Internet freedom in an international context as if it’s separate” when it’s not, he said.

Mr. Greeley compared the privacy issue to global warming, wondering if change could come from good personal data habits, like committing to reusable shopping bags. Asking citizens to safeguard their own data would be difficult and ineffective compared to a legislative initiative, Mr. Morozov said, with a hedge. “I’m not playing Al Gore on this panel,” he said.

Is Privacy Overhyped? A Panel Discusses