Wednesday, March 29, 2006

CIPS Winnipeg March Dinner Debrief

"The Dark Side of Technology"
with Dr. Thomas Keenan

I said it in my last post, and I'll say it again. Dr. Keenan: wow.

Maybe it's just that in my previous life I didn't go to many dinner/presentation events by experienced speakers. Most of my presentation experience comes from watching students give book summations and university administrative staff talk about regulations. But a presenter of Dr. Keenan's abilities was a pleasure to watch.

For the main presentation of the evening, Dr. Keenan expanded on the themes brought up during the student session immediately previous, but with some much darker overtones. After pumping up the students with talk of exciting new technologies and industries, he told the full meeting about some of the darker consequences they may have.

Although I'm certain it wasn't his intention, I thought it was very interesting that he fed almost pure enthusiasm to the the students, but to the older, more conservative crowd is more like "very cautious optimism". It wasn't pessimism, but if there were and Luddites in the crowd, they would have come away with even more reasons for their conviction.

As with the student session, Dr. Keenan laid out a number of factors with extensive discussion and examples. Each one of these is a huge topic, and I provide them here only in point-form:

1. "Hygiene Factors" are very important to technology.
2. There is a real democratization of information going on
3. We are underestimating both the good and the bad effects of this.
4. "Access" alone should not be enough of a motivation to provide data to the public.
5. "Location awareness" and the $5 GPS unit is the new "crappy digital clock".
6. The law will always lag behind technology.
7. Big changes are happening "under the radar" of mainstream discourse.
8. A.I. is going to make all of these issues worse, both when it works as intended, AND when it doesn't.

So, after outlining some pretty disturbing trends in privacy and information technology, Dr. Keenan proposed the remedy of "volitional cecity". That's a fancy way to say you turn away from some information that you could have collected/retained/displayed.

Volitional cecity has some basic principles:

1. Least privilege to records
This is something every programming student learns: data hiding and encapsulation. You don't expose all your data to everyone, only to who needs it and only when they really do. There's no reason for the general public to know how much I paid in property taxes last year, so don't make it available to everyone. Echoing the point from earlier in his presentation, "increased public access information" is not an independently positive goal.

2. Continuous full disclosure
One of the ideas which I loved was the idea that you would receive a SMS message every time your identity was asserted (credit card used, name entered at a log in screen, etc). We all know how frustrating that our credit records are hidden behind the black box of the credit bureaus. The idea of continuous full disclosure addresses a lot of my personal fears about the growing information databases out there.

3. Acknowledge when benefits become imperatives
I remember when I was younger I refused to own a credit card. Sure, there were some benefits that I had to fore go, but it wasn't necessary to have a credit card in order to lead a normal life. But last year, I broke down and got one. Living without an entry in the credit bureau's databases was just becoming too limiting. How do you buy a house without a credit rating? Dr. Keenan asks us to be aware of this point and not allow companies to tie so many benefits to an invasion of our privacy that it becomes de-facto mandatory.

Dr. Keenan himself seemed a little chagrined to be using IBM as a role model for volitional cecity. It seems he has some unvoiced, and large, disagreements with IBM, but he was forced to applaud them for their refusal to use DNA information in their human resources department to make decisions about hiring, firing, and benefits.

Dr. Keenan gave us a great evening of very thought provoking information. My thanks to him and to Susan Zuk and the CIPS Winnipeg Section people for putting on a great evening. See you next month!