Privacy@Michigan panels present interdisciplinary take on future of internet privacy

Tuesday, January 30, 2018 - 7:37pm

J. Alex Halderman, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, speaks about how privacy and security work together in celebration of International Data Privacy Day at the Privacy@Michigan panel in North Quad Tuesday.

J. Alex Halderman, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, speaks about how privacy and security work together in celebration of International Data Privacy Day at the Privacy@Michigan panel in North Quad Tuesday. Buy this photo
Haley McLaughlin/Daily

 

In honor of International Data Privacy Day, the University of Michigan’s School of Information and the Office of Information Assurance hosted Privacy@Michigan, a series of interdisciplinary panels on internet privacy Tuesday in North Quad Residence Hall. Approximately 100 faculty and community members attended.

The first panel, “Privacy in a Connected World: An Oxymoron?” dealt with generational privacy differences and online personal privacy. Sol Bermann, interim Chief Information Security Officer, moderated the event. Each speaker discussed their personal privacy research as well as their common observances of privacy in today’s world.

Prior to a question and answer session, each speaker gave a brief overview of their research. Susan Gelman, a professor of psychology and linguistics, spoke about her research on people’s feelings regarding a stranger tracking their personal items. She found a divide between the children and undergraduate students she studied.

According to Gelman, children, up to about age six, did not have an issue with — and sometimes even liked — when a stranger was able to track the number of items they owned. However, undergraduate students were almost entirely opposed to strangers having the ability to track their items, citing an invasion of their privacy as the main reason for the opposition. She wrapped up her section of the panel by pondering why this division occurs and what is significant about its timing.

The second speaker, Sarita Yardi Schoenebeck, an assistant professor in the School of Information, spoke on issues of privacy in social media. She showed the extensive range of ways parents have started to share everything by citing the specific nature of some parenting blogs. This opened up her main question of why parents post so much information online, to which she responded, “They feel validated as a good parent.”

“For the first time in history, children are growing up with this online (presence) established without their permission or consent often started before they’re even born,” Schoenebeck said.

The second part of Schoenebeck’s talk focused on older childrens' comments about their past online posts. She said most undergraduate students on social media tend to keep their older posts in order to seem more real online.

“(Undergraduates) say that they are embarrassed by these old photos but typically they don't delete them because that would be inauthentic,” Schoenebeck said.

She closed her portion of the panel by concluding that parents and children should think of themselves together, not separate, in terms of social media.

J. Alex Halderman, an electrical engineering and computer science professor, spoke about how privacy and security work together. Halderman said he wanted to “celebrate some of what technology is doing well” instead of focusing on the negatives related to privacy.

He discussed the benefits and advancements privacy has made through encryption.

“It's never been possible before to send a message to the other side of the world with a pretty high assurance that nobody is going to be able to read it,” Halderman said.

Halderman also talked about Facebook, saying privacy on the medium has improved and is not the only problem.

“Many of us like to argue people are oversharing,” Halderman said. “They also provide very fine grain and detailed controls about how your information is going to be shared.”

Florian Schaub, an assistant professor in the School of Information and an organizer of the event, was the final speaker of the first panel. Schaub focused on asking how people can learn to make better privacy decisions.

“People struggle to make good privacy decisions,” Schaub said. “People are concerned about privacy but … don’t even know where to start.”

Schaub outlined three potential solutions to this decision problem. The first solution was to provide relevant information to citizens, not material manufactured by legal professionals, in hopes of seeing privacy policies that are more concise and understandable. The second was to make the information in these policies easier to be acted upon. His third solution was to embed privacy into interaction.

After Schaub’s talk, Bermann opened the floor to questions which brought forth many new thoughts on privacy.

In response to a question on why Gelman did not include teenagers in her study, she said she didn’t believe there would be a large enough impact on this age range.

“Honestly it's because we couldn't imagine that by 10 years of age kids wouldn't be (affected) by privacy implications of this stranger tracking their backpack,” Gelman said.

When asked a question on the government’s role in privacy and security, Halderman said he wished the government was involved in more elements of personal privacy due to their breadth of resources.

The second panel — “Privacy is Freedom: Censorship, Power Asymmetries and Politics” — focused on individual research and the impacts of privacy on everyday life. Schaub served as the moderator for this panel.

John Cheney-Lippold, an assistant professor of American culture, was the first panelist and took a historical perspective on privacy, citing the first instance when the term was coined in 1890. He said it is important to redefine privacy in terms of the 21st century. There are inaccuracies in identification in the era of the internet, such as race and gender identification based on internet searches.

“For me, privacy is not then just about closing yourself from the outside world,” Cheney-Lippold said. “It’s about understanding who you are. It’s not just understanding if you are a citizen in the state. It’s about understanding what citizenship means, what gender means, and what race means. If we’re thinking about the self and not the collective then we’re missing out on everything in between. ”

Christian Sandvig, a School of Information professor, spoke after Cheney-Lippold and said in the past, different thinking styles have dictated how society approaches the world. In modern day, however, computational and statistical methods are more applicable. Sandvig said these ideas could be applied to privacy as well.

“Statistical style imagines privacy as a kind of forwarding or managing your data or demographic because to figure it out they will use models similar to how a company might model for its products,” Sandvig said.

Roya Ensafi, a research assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the College of Engineering,  focused on how surveillance of individuals affects confidentiality. She said her research involves developing new techniques and machines to detect any interference from harmful sources. Ensafi spoke on discrimination that can arise from servers detecting a person’s location, which she described as the regionalization of the internet.

The final panelist was Gautam Hans, a clinical fellow at the Law School. Hans covered the legal issues regarding privacy, especially in terms of the terms of service and privacy agreements many users of apps and websites agree to without reading. Hans works with clients in writing privacy policies for their customers.

“There are lots of concerns about the data that is being collected,” Hans said. “I do also think that this might be interesting when designing privacy policies.”

In response to a prompt on the future of privacy from Schaub, the panelists shared that their hope for the future of privacy was evident in the event's large audience.

Schaub wrote in an email interview that the interdisciplinary approach of the panel was meant to show the breadth of the research and resources at the University in terms of privacy. He also wrote that it was a way to allow different disciplines to interact.

“We wanted to bring together faculty, researchers, students and staff from different colleges, schools and units across campus with the goal of sparking on-going, multidisciplinary conversations about privacy’s role in society—here at U-M and worldwide,” Schaub wrote.