Bruce Schneier on data privacy and democracy

2 May 2022
By Markus Gunadi and Alex Tananbaum
Markus Gunadi and Alex Tanabaum
Markus Gunadi and Alex Tananbaum

Editor’s note: Bruce Schneier is a security technologist, board member at Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, lecturer at Harvard University, and chief architect at Inrupt, Inc., as well as the author of over a dozen books. He came to Carleton in April to talk about data privacy, the future of data usage and democracy, and more. Two of our student authors, Alex Tananbaum and Markus Gunadi, were among the audience, and they filed this report.

Cheating with 100 digits of Pi to show how hackers think: 

Bruce briefly talked about his unorthodox teaching style. To teach how a hacker might think, Bruce’s class had to memorize the first 100 digits of pi for a quiz where they would be expected to cheat. How would you cheat on this test?

Markus: I would write the digits of pi somewhere on my body that I could see easily but would also be hidden by a desk. For example, I would write the digits of pi on my ankle in the morning of the quiz. My backup plan would be to sneak into his office and change the answers while he was away!

Alex: I would write the digits on my pencil the night before, then look at the pencil as I was writing. I think the trick would be making sure that the ink isn’t too visible to other people, but still visible to me. Additionally, making sure that the ink didn’t smear would be important. Perhaps writing it a few days before so that it dries and I can experiment with color would be helpful. 

Data Privacy:

Bruce talked about why privacy is “essential to human dignity” because without it we lose control over how we present ourselves. Do you agree that privacy is important for this reason?

Markus: In the past I have always wondered why my data was important. If a large corporation had data on millions or even billions of people, why would the information about me be important to anyone? Bruce’s insight began to answer this question. I am a very private person and act very differently around my friends than when I am with my family. Without privacy, I could not do this. I do agree with Bruce’s statement about privacy being important to human dignity but am still not sure how I feel about Google knowing everything about me. On one hand, I am uncomfortable by the idea of a faceless corporation knowing my data but I also often use the features that need my data. For example, when doing homework for a class, it is very helpful to know what past websites I have visited which would be impossible if Google did not have my data.

Alex: I definitely agree with the fact that we are losing necessary control over how we present ourselves online. I am an anxious person. I don’t like the idea of large corporations having my data. I feel very uncomfortable when I see targeted advertisements on sites where I have my adblock is turned off, such as on Spanishdict or various news sites. I still see ads for waterproof phone cases because that is what I was shopping for in the last month, and it is scary. It feels very invasive, and I wish we had more control over our data and how it is kept and used. An example Bruce talked about is Google tracking and storing our locational data long after we close Google Maps. They don’t need to keep that as long as they do! I honestly hope more regulations are passed on how large corporations can keep and use our data, but Bruce also noted that in the United States at least, money can often buy policy. Big tech companies can donate large sums to candidates they know won’t pass regulations. Because of this, I suspect that change will be difficult.

Data and the Free Market:

One of the most controversial topics in today’s society is how much should the government regulate our corporations. Bruce believes in the rights of the individual to have control over their data, and feels that the government could be helpful in making that a reality. How much do we think that the data free market should be regulated?

Markus: Overall, I agree with Bruce’s ideas about data and the corporations. They strike a balance between the comforts given by modern technology while protecting the rights of a consumer. I also learned a lot about how little we know about data brokers which frightened me. The most memorable quote Bruce said at this talk was “Data is the pollution of the information age”. If one is to agree with this statement, the way we clean up this pollution is by heavily regulating how companies can collect and use data.

Alex: You know, Bruce mentioned that data usage by corporations can actually sometimes be helpful. His example was after you buy a few books on Amazon, the company can then recommend other books that you might like. While I do have complicated feelings about Amazon, I can see the way that that usage of data gives them an advantage over potential competitors and can also be helpful to the user. That said, I think that Instagram tracking how I interact with ads to show me products that match those interactions is a bit creepy. I really don’t like the idea of corporations being able to sell my data to the highest bidder. I think that there should be clearer guidelines on how long companies can keep data and how they can use that data. Also, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel when making these policies. The European Union has a pretty comprehensive policy on data usage and protection.

Data For Social Good:

Bruce noted that data collection could be used for social good. His specific examples were its usage in pinpointing where money laundering was most common in the London housing market and the ability to track the planes of Russian oligarchs. What are our thoughts on this?

Markus: When I first heard about a teenager who was tracking Elon Musk’s plane, I thought it was a hilarious reversal of roles where a Billionaire was being hurt by technology instead of making a profit from it. I definitely know that data can be used for social good and this is a field that needs to be looked at more closely. However, I believe data is usually used to harm society rather than improve it and I have watched ads where corporations twist their motives as a means for “Social Good”. As a result, in the back of my mind I have mixed feelings about projects that use data for social good.

Alex: I also first heard about the teenager tracking Elon Musk’s private jet. Bruce talked a lot about how wealthy people could buy privacy in a way that the rest of the population can’t, and I agree that it was funny to see that privacy bypassed by someone around our age. I think that data can certainly be used for social good. Bruce’s examples included holding people responsible in ways that I think are quite interesting. However, I also agree with Markus that corporations can often pretend they are using data for social good, when in reality they are mostly benefiting from it. For example, Uber uses some data collection to make sure that a ride is going safely through its RideCheck service, but it has also used its data to track if a person stayed the night with their presumed date. I think it’s a question of who gets to keep the data and who is enacting that social good. 

Future of Technology and Democracy: 

Bruce briefly talked about a theoretical project about using tech to reimagine democracy. This included otherworldly ideas like having algorithms create policies for us, or doing away with representative based democracies and taking advantage of the instantaneous communication tech has given us. Do you think these new institutions would be better than our current system of government?

Markus: This was the part of the talk that interested me the most. As a fan of all things sci-fi and someone who loves to think about what will happen in the future, reimagining our form of government with tech was something I never thought about. Still, I have also read too many dystopian novels to trust tech as a way of governance. Already we have seen examples of when a representative decision would have been better than a public decision in Brexit. The public can easily be misinformed and often needs a representative whose job is to do the research and make a decision for them. Obviously, corruption is where this process can break down and representatives can make mistakes. So maybe it would be worth it to rethink our oldest beliefs about what a democracy should look like.

Alex: The idea of tech designing our policies is fascinating to me. Perhaps it could show unequivocally that things such as universal healthcare are what is best for most Americans, thereby convincing more representatives to vote for it. However, I also worry about who is making the AI. Something that comes to mind is racial profiling and discrimination in existing facial recognition software. How do we make sure that our human biases don’t influence how we use and create policy-making technology? I agree that this system could become very dystopian very quickly. That said, I could see ways in which data could be helpful in helping lawmakers make policy. Though I think we would definitely need technology “translators” like Bruce to make sure policymakers know how the technology works. 

Applying Bruce’s ideas as Carleton students:

Bruce made several interesting points in his talk. How will we as Carleton students incorporate those suggestions into our lives?

Markus: After Bruce’s talk I began to think more about what I sacrifice when using applications like Instagram or Google more. Right now, I believe these applications are too difficult for me to give up as I need them for educational and social purposes. However, I do agree with Bruce that these applications should not be controlled by monopolies. So while I still will use Instagram even though it is owned by Meta, I would also support our government to break up the tech giants of today. 

Furthermore, as someone who may potentially major in CS but also loves history, I enjoyed Bruce’s acknowledgment for the importance of a liberal arts education in today’s world. I would like to continue in pursuing multiple fields at Carleton and hopefully make the world a better place using my education.
Alex: Bruce talked about breaking out of our “bubbles.” I think his specific examples included if we often take humanities courses taking a computer science course and vice versa. As someone who wants to be an English major but has also taken CS courses both before and at Carleton, this idea resonated with me. Learning to code has taught me to think through problems logically and complete prompts in a step by step process, both of which are quite useful steps in essay writing, for example. Also, I’m going to look into getting a VPN to gain back a bit of privacy.