Geeks, Spies Debate Web Privacy

Technology pioneers mix with cyberpunks, law professors, federal agents, and others to debate the state of personal privacy online, at the 10th Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference here.

Organized by the Association for Computing Machinery, the CFP conference attracts a broad spectrum of people with an interest in protecting the privacy and freedom of people who use the Internet. Participants trade anecdotes, debate current affairs, and share both their positive and dystopian visions of the future.

The conference programs include panel discussions on computer security, intellectual property, Internet voting, digital music and DVD rights, and the privacy of health database information.

"When I showed up, I thought to myself, 'Wow, what a geekfest,' " said first-time attendee Gregg Bishop, vice president of technical operations for Thestreet.com. "I will definitely be back next year."

But despite the serious discussion, CFP is also known for its casual, collegial, class-reunion atmosphere. "It's a schmooze-fest," says Internet software analyst Richard Smith.

Still, Smith notes, the event is also a forum to review the monitoring capabilities being built into the Internet, consider what can go wrong with the technology, and identify unintended side effects.

Awards and Dishonors

Part street theater, part seed for serious debate, the CFP also hosts two awards ceremonies. The Electronic Frontier Foundation presents its prestigious Pioneer Awards, which honor individuals who contribute to the online world. Privacy International names its Orwell Awards, giving the most invasive individuals, companies, or government organizations the Big Brother, a statuette of a boot stepping on a man's head.

This year, the Orwell Awards were hosted by Dr. Evil, the cinematic arch-nemesis of Austin Powers--in the person of Simon Davies, a Privacy International cofounder who shaved his head for the occasion.

Orwell award winners included Web ad server DoubleClick, the United States Department of Commerce, and the Federal Aviation Administration (for creating a body-scanning device that can see through clothes, performing a virtual strip-search on anyone who steps inside). The Lifetime Menace Award went to credit reporting bureau Trans Union, "for selling credit reports to marketers and keeping inaccurate reports for years," according to Privacy International.

The raucous audience, pressed person-to-person overflowing into the breezeway outside the main conference hall, applauded when a man dressed as a skeleton accepted the award for the FAA. The skeleton gave a mock Powerpoint presentation claiming that five years from now, FAA scanners will advance to be able to see "terrorists in the womb, before they're even born."

The more tame EFF awards event honored Tim Berners-Lee, who created the Web language HTML; UCLA technology professor Phil Agre; and mathematics researchers Nyan Hajratwala and Scott Kurowski, who created the GIMPS program that used the Internet to find the largest prime number to date). The EFF also recognized "Librarians Everywhere" as "unsung heroes of the fight for free expression, intellectual freedom, and access to the Internet."

Accepting the award for librarians was Karen Schneider, assistant director for technology at Shenendehowa Public Library in Clifton Park, New York. She told the crowd, "I've spent my life being the pied piper for the Internet in libraries, but I don't have a clue how to split this award up among the 160,000 reference librarians in the United States."

Educating Spies

Even a representative of super-secret United States spy agency the National Security Agency got a warm welcome--but not at first.

"The EFF crowd was very welcoming," says Kenneth Olthoff, who said that at first, fellow attendees would see "NSA" on his badge "and say 'You're kidding, right?' " Olthoff could only say his job is "to keep some set of systems secure."

Attendees say they believe they can make a difference in the technological world.

"It's not hard to justify being here to my supervisor; this is an important conference to be at," said NSA's Olthoff. "But I'm not sure the kind of thinking about the big picture that happens here is part of the corporate culture or strategic plans of many big organizations."

Too, the participants are like-minded enough that one called the experience "preaching to the converted."

Olthoff says he finds the experience useful. "Just being a part of the discussions at CFP forces you to ratchet up your thoughts, and look not only at the technology but also at the philosophy of designing systems--and their implications," he says.

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