Preserving privacy in a world of information abundance
Edward W. Felten, a computer security and privacy expert, urged students to figure out what it will take to keep personal information private.
What is privacy and what can we do to protect it?
These were the key questions that Edward W. Felten, the founding director of the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University, explored in his speech, “TMI: Information, Identity and Privacy,” in McCrary Theatre Monday evening.
“There are lots and lots of information about people getting collected, getting analyzed and getting used in new ways,” Felten said.
There are already a trillion gigabytes of information stored in the world and by the time first-year students at Elon graduate, there will be an additional two trillion gigabytes of information created, Felten said.
“What is the impact of all this information and the processing of this information going to be on privacy?” Felten asked.
Felten, who specializes in computer security and related identity and privacy issues, has testified in a number of high-profile government lawsuits involving the misuse of technology information. He was appointed the chief technologist for the U.S. Federal Trade Commission in 2011.
His talk Monday night was part of the Voices of Discovery speaker series, sponsored by Elon College, the College of Arts and Sciences. The series invites noted scholars in science and mathematics to Elon to share their knowledge and experience with students.
“The information collection going on today by the government is just the beginning of what is possible,” Felten said.
Felten explained to students that they are living in a unique time of social transition.
“It’s really up to you to figure out how to do this, to set the path that society is going to follow,” he said. “It’s up to all of you—and all of us—to figure out how we can live in a world of information abundance and yet keep the sphere of privacy and private lives we are accustomed to having.”
While people have different definitions of privacy, it is essentially “control over who learns which facts about you,” Felten said.
“If you don’t want someone to learn certain facts about you, if you don’t want them to learn some sensitive fact, here’s a pretty simple plan for achieving that: The plan is don’t reveal the sensitive fact,” he said.
The plan is indeed simple. It also doesn’t work in a world where there is an abundance of information available.
“The reason it doesn’t work is because of the problem with inference,” he said. “... When you reveal a fact to someone, you are revealing not only the fact itself but everything else that can be inferred from it.”
Felten offered several examples, including a diagram where he was a common link between several people and founder of WikiLeaks Julian Assange. Based on that diagram, Felten said, it is easy to infer that he knows Assange, however, he does not.
“Inferences aren’t always right,” he said. “Rather than inferring a fact for sure, you are inferring the likelihood of a fact.”
There are ways to analyze large sets of data without violating an individual’s privacy, Felten said. The key is figuring out how to do it. He suggested that the “computational power” that created privacy problems might be the place to look for answers.
“This is really an exciting time to be a privacy researcher because this sort of theory and other methods of protecting privacy, while still doing the things with data that people want to do, are starting to emerge,” he said.
It is still unclear, however, how society will adapt to all the changes that are occurring related to privacy.
“If you are a student, this is something that will get answered over your lifetime,” Felten said.