In writing the 1948 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell explicitly considered the interaction of privacy and freedom. He imagined a single Big Brother that watched and controlled everyone, but he was writing before the arrival of computers.
The annual ACM Computers, Freedom, and Privacy (CFP) conference in San Jose has a more complex world to consider. Not only do computers and networks complicate the situation but Orwell never imagined a world in which thousands of Little Brothers (companies, local government agencies, advertisers) jockey for tracking opportunities.
If a theme dominated this year's CFP, the 20th in the series, it was Facebook and other social networks. On Tuesday, 10 privacy organisations, many of which sent representatives to this conference, wrote an open letter to Facebook requesting that the company improve its privacy policies. Facebook's response was not encouraging.
In that respect, the up-and-comer of today is at odds with the up-and-comers of previous years. Peter Cullen, Microsoft's chief privacy strategist, sees privacy as a key issue, as does Kent Walker, the 1997 CFP chairman, now vice president and general counsel at Google.
CFP always brings together widely disparate points of view and expertise with the goal of peering ahead to see where today's emerging technologies will spark future conflicts and to pre-emptively consider possible solutions. The problems posed by cloud computing were a popular topic this year.
Miranda Mowbray, a researcher at HP's Bristol labs, noted that privacy concerns have created a significant business opportunity for European providers, since European Union data protection law does not allow companies to export data to the US.
Brad Templeton, internet pioneer and former chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, proposed to protect privacy in cloud computing by effectively creating what he called the equivalent of a bank's safe deposit box by separating application and data.
A user would work on data by pulling an application from the cloud into a Java virtual machine to work on information stored either at a separate service provider or on-site.
Other forward-looking panels considered the problem of domestic robots and privacy, and considered the legal, ethical and moral consequences of superpowers. Mowbray, who led the latter panel, which included University of Central Lancashire researcher Judith Rauhofer, pointed out that augmented humans have long been studied by fantasy and science fiction authors.
While there may be some argument about what constitutes a cyborg, Mowbray pointed out that these issues are with us now: the number of automated accounts on Twitter was as high as 24 per cent last year, and that percentage is climbing steeply.
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