net.wars: Computers, Freedom, and Privacy 2009 – Day Two

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 03 June 2009

One hundred and thirty-three days into the Obama Administration. Is he any better than Bush on privacy?

Wendy M Grossman

He still still has a lot of fans – one conference attendee was wearing silver Obama logo earrings yesterday and CNet writer Declan McCullough was pleased that a FOIA request that kept him waiting for over a year was answered within a few weeks of the inauguration – privacy advocates are beginning to carp that his record on privacy seems unlikely to be any improvement on his immediate predecessor's. Kicking off the day's first session, Susan Crawford talked some good principles, but a basic one – answering public questions – was off-limits. `

McCullough also noted that Obama has yet to fulfill his promise to post non-emergency legislation for public comment for five days before signing it.

Meanwhile, however, said the ACLU's Caroline Fredrickson, the US's Real ID effort, which threatened to unify state-issued driver's licenses into a single national ID card-equivalent, has halted under the pressure of the refusal of many individual states to participate. Why? Unworkable, costly, and invasive. Sounds like Britain's ID card, though the UK government still persists, lacking state governments to stand in its way.

"A mistake in the database can render you an unperson," she noted.

There was another good line on this: "Information asymmetry is how repressive regimes operate." The Internet's power to flatten information hierarchies all by itself might be why Nicole Wong wakes up every morning and checks her Blackberry to find out which country Google is blocked in today. As the deputy general counsel for Google, it's her job not only to track that sort of thing but to try to remove these blockages by negotiating with national governments. The New York Times recently described Wong as the person with the most influence over the exercise of free speech in the world.

Wong was part of my panel on Internet censorship, we were arguing about censorship in the US, the UK, and Australia, and debating whether John Gilmore's oft-quoted aphorism is still correct. "The Internet perceives censorship as damage, and routes around it," Gilmore thinks he probably said sometime in 1990 or thereabouts. Is that still true, given the computing power to do deep packet inspection? Very possibly not. Derek Bambauer had a neat list of the stages of Internet censorship. Version 1.0: it can't be done. Version 2.0: the bad guys do it. Version 3.0: everyone does it.

Australia is on round two of let's-filter-the-Internet, and it is the world's pilot on this. The danger, Wong commented, is that we may get tied up in arguing whether it's OK to filter specific types of content; the existence of a filter in a country like Australia legitimizes filtering for the more repressive countries coming online that she has to negotiate with.

Perhaps the most surprising bit of the day was the appearance on the same panel of Bruce Schneierand Stewart Baker without acrimony. Valerie Caproni, the FBI's general counsel, also on that panel, was a little frostier, particularly when travel data privacy expert Edward Hasbrouck attacked her and the US government's apparent belief that foreigners do not have the same human rights as US citizens. Both Schneier and Baker fired off a few good lines. Schneier pointed out that as technology increases and gives each of us more personal power amplitude, the harm that ten armed men can do to society keeps getting bigger. At what point, he asked, is that noise bigger than society?

Baker, who's made a sort of career of insulting the CFP crowd, more or less agreed: there is an illusion that the continued working of Moore's Law is always going to be beneficial to society. That aside, Baker was slightly miffed. After winning the Big Brother award for Worst Public Official in 2007, he said, Privacy International had yet to deliver his award. Via Twitter PI promised to deliver it. Eventually. When he least expects it.

More tomorrow.

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