Some Tech Trying to Protect Privacy

May 17, 2007
Nicole A. Ozer

Page Media

ACLU of Northern CA

We are now living in a world where the technology exists to keep track of everything we do and say and everywhere we go. Video surveillance, RFID chips that allow stored data to be read at a distance, and massive databases of who we call and what Internet sites we browse mean more information about our lives is being preserved, and being preserved for longer periods of time.

Advances in digital storage capacity, and computers now capable of efficiently indexing and searching vast amounts of archived digital data, seem to be leading our society toward a digital version of Jeremy Bentham's panopticon , a world in which citizens limit their speech and actions for fear of how endlessly retained surveillance or personal data might someday be used against them.

But some academics and scientists are turning technology on its head, developing technical solutions that help to enhance users' privacy.

For example, Professor Viktor Mayer-Schönberger of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government argues in a recent working paper that personal digital information should have a reasonable, predetermined shelf life, enforced by the same technologies that collect and store it.

In a similar vein, Belgian and German researchers have proposed a system to help individuals manage the photographs taken of them with cell phone cameras, integrated into the very camera-phones that take and transmit the pictures.

Some companies are developing software that seeks to enable businesses to share sensitive data anonymously. The technology allows companies to compare and cross-reference things like customer lists and identity records without sacrificing customers' privacy by revealing the actual underlying data to competing or partner firms.

Other researchers are working on technical measures to protect citizens' privacy online. Tor allows users to surf the Internet anonymously, and provides crucial protection of the free speech rights of those who fear real-world retaliation for what they do or say online.

There is also an annual conference to discuss privacy- enhancing technologies. This year, it is in Ottawa, Canada from June 20-22. More information here.

Do you know about other privacy-enhancing technologies? Let us know!