Wired Coverage of Computers, Freedom, and Privacy Conference

I’ve been at the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference this week–there were many interesting panels which I hope to blog about soon. Wired has some good coverage of it, including this commentary on a panel I organized:

[P]rofessor Samir Chopra [asked] “Suppose Google was subject to a law which required all persons to report knowledge of a crime to the authorities. . . . Could Google be sued for breach of statutory duty if AdSense knew about people using drugs?”

While that’s still hypothetical, other panelists emphasized that computer systems are already acting as agents in our world, making decisions about whether someone is a known terrorist, a likely threat at the border or a deadbeat parent late on child support. Or put another way, software is already policy. [As] panelist Danielle Citron, a University of Maryland law professor put it: “Where agencies used to use computers to store data to help agencies make decisions, now computers make decisions.”

On the comments to Ryan Singel’s post, Chopra notes:

[Our] comfort with Adsense, and our intuitions about it, would be shaken very quickly if the interface for Gmail was slightly different (with no change in functionality). Right now, the ads just show up unobtrusively. What if the interface was modified so that a little figure would pop up as you reading your email, and say “Hey, I see you are writing about Australia. Would you like me to show you ads for cheap flights to Australia?”. I suggest that people’s sense of there being nothing untoward would be shaken and yet, this would have happened with no difference in the underlying functionality.

Our “reasonable expectations of privacy” may be quite deeply affected by seemingly superficial design decisions.

Other conference highlights included:

1. Paul Ohm on potential lawbreaking by ISPs:

University of Colorado law professor Paul Ohm, a former federal computer crimes prosecutor, argues that ISPs such as Comcast, AT&T and Charter Communications that are or are contemplating ways to throttle bandwidth, police for copyright violations and serve targeted ads by examining their customers’ internet packets are putting themselves in criminal and civil jeopardy.

“These ISPs are getting close to the line of illegality and may be violating the law,” Ohm told conference goers at the Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference Thursday.

2. McCain campaign not quite as pro-rule-of-law as they’d appeared at the conference:

It’s official, John McCain still supports amnesty for telephone and internet companies that helped the Bush Administration target Americans for wiretapping for five years, without getting any court orders.

The confusion resulted from a tech policy discussion in New Haven, Connecticut Wednesday where a surrogate for presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain said that as president, McCain would require strict conditions for amnesty. . . . His comments were remarkable, since in February, McCain voted against an amendment that would have stripped from a spying bill amnesty for telecoms that helped with the government’s five-year warrantless wiretapping in volation of federal privacy laws. . . .

McCain’s online outreach manager Patrick Hynes wrote THREAT LEVEL to say the story “incorrectly represented” McCain’s position on freeing telecoms from the civil suits pending against them, saying the campaign regretted any confusion.

Too bad.

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