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Snowden espouses about data ethics and privacy

Kacy Zurkus | Oct. 23, 2015
As devices become more interconnected and big data reveals more about private lives and daily habits, many wonder what the future holds for privacy.

edward snowden monitor
American whistleblower Edward Snowden is seen on monitors as he delivers remarks via video link from Moscow to attendees at a discussion regarding an International Treaty on the Right to Privacy, Protection Against Improper Surveillance and Protection of Whistleblowers in Manhattan, New York September 24, 2015. Credit: REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.  -- In the aftermath of Edward Snowden’s controversial leaks that revealed widespread US surveillance and data gathering, researchers, scholars, lawyers, and privacy advocates gathered at the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College to engage in conversations about privacy and data ethics.

The Internet of Things continues to grow, and big data has the potential to drive big changes in how society defines privacy. Roger Berkowitz, associate professor of Political Science and Human Rights at Bard College, said many consumers are willing to sacrifice their privacy in exchange for the conveniences technology affords them.

Oft heard in debates over why privacy matters is the argument "I have nothing to hide." Whether indifferent or apathetic, some people don’t take umbrage with government surveillance or data collection.

Privacy advocates, though, are concerned about big data whether collected through government surveillance or user devices. Former NSA contractor and keynote speaker at the “Surveillance and the Private Life: Why Privacy Matters” conference, Snowden argued, “Privacy isn’t about something to hide.  It’s about something to lose.”

Snowden was one of many privacy advocates who discussed the value of privacy in a world where people are willing to expose their lives for public consumption. He spoke at the event via satellite as he continues to live in Russia. The difference with social media services like Twitter, Snowden said, “Is about being able to share selectively. We decide. We pick the ideas to share.”

What’s missing from the discussions about surveillance and data collection is this point of consent, he said. “It’s about voluntary participation. The right to privacy does not obligate us to live completely private lives. You’re not obligated to cut yourself off from society,” said Snowden.  

Ashkan Soltani, who currently serves as the chief technologist for the FTC, said, “I hate the word privacy. I don’t think it describes the technology issues we are facing.  It’s more about information.  Someone has some information about me. Sometimes I know they have it and sometimes I don’t.  When I don’t know how it is used is what creates the harm.”

Where information used to be ephemeral, Soltani said, “Now we have websites that take all of this ephemeral behavior that can be used in a way that we don’t agree with.  The nature of info is now gone and along with it comes the risk of info being used in a way we don’t desire.”


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