Thoughts on time between…

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It has been a full semester since the last post– seems like just a moment. Fall is a favorite time of mine for lots of reasons, but Fall Semester is fun because I get to teach my privacy course. It is small, it is intense, and it is a lot of work, but it is more fun than I can imagine having in any other context. We had our usual count of the surveillance cameras on and around campus (a lot), a lab on unprotected web cameras that ended up with us all watching a wedding in a Las Vegas chapel (the bride went as Marilyn Monroe, and groom as early Elvis and the official doing the ceremony as the later Elvis), and a slew of projects that were amazing, creepy, and often both.

This year was especially interesting, given all of the privacy-related things that were going on in the rest of the world. We had more Snowden revelations, new and interesting hacks, Facebook and Google doing things that were questionable, and goings on in our own community. All of which had privacy implications.

One event led to some interesting discussions, both in and out of class. The first was the revelation that some educational research had taken place on the effect of attendance on the outcomes in a course. The research entailed placing cameras in some courses to determine how many were attending on any given day. This was done without the knowledge of either the students in the class or the professors teaching those classes, and once revealed lead to considerable discussion in the general Harvard community. I was a part of some of these in my role as CTO. But the most interesting conversations were the ones I had with my class.

The first thing that the students wanted to know was more details about the study itself– did the study get reviewed by the Institutional Review Board, and if so what did the application look like and what was the determination? How were the cameras used to determine attendance, and were they counting raw numbers or could the cameras tell if a particular student was attending or not? How were the courses that were part of the study selected? All of these were great questions, and at the time of maximum controversy, none were answered publicly. This didn’t stop a lot of the discussion, but it did cause the students to stop and wonder. We never got answers to all of the questions (in particular, we never saw the IRB application), but the answers that came out about some (the experiment did get submitted to the IRB; the cameras could only tell wether or not someone was in a seat, not track individuals; classes were picked by being in the right Science Center rooms), things seemed a lot less sinister than they had at first. The students tended to think that the privacy of the students was not compromised (after all, what is the reasonable expectation of privacy in a lecture hall) but perhaps the instructor’s privacy was (although there was continuing discussion about that).

What did become clear is that the issue really revolved around trust, and the more information that was available, the easier it was to trust that the researchers were not compromising privacy. When there were few facts, it was easy to speculate and ascribe questionable motives to those involved, which raised all of the privacy hackles. But as we all learned more, it was easier to see what was being done in a clearer way, and to become less concerned about the motives of the actors. It still seemed sort of creepy, but it was hard to see the actions as immoral (and we never got to the discussion of illegal).

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Anonymity, Privacy, and Big Data
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Architecture at HUIT

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