By David Gordon, associate editor
Technologies used for collecting personal digital data are evolving too quickly for either ethics or legislative restraints to keep pace, according to Paul Wagner, a retired UW-Eau Claire computer science professor who has studied the topic in depth.
Wagner spoke Wednesday at the UW-EC Emeriti Faculty Association’s final luncheon of the academic year. About 60 people attended the event at the Clarion Inn.
Wagner said there is an inevitable clash between privacy interests and security concerns in regard to digital data, but added that people should also be concerned about the integrity of such data – whether they can be tampered with by outside parties.
Privacy, he said is “severely threatened these days by both business and government.”
He noted the often-difficult balance that needs to be struck between freedom and privacy, and said that the relationship between convenience and privacy is almost always an inverse one. So, he added, is the relationship between convenience and security.
Huge amounts of personal information are collected in normal business transactions, saved in various places, often shared and used for a wide variety of purposes, he said. It’s now possible to identify 87% of the country’s population using only date of birth, gender and a five-digit zip code, Wagner added.
“Part of the problem is that technology is changing so rapidly that we don’t have time” for the ideal progression from recognizing an issue to becoming aware of – and discussing – its ethical implications, and only then moving on to possible legislative action, he said. The speeded-up process too often leads to ill-informed legislative decisions, he added.
Wagner said there are a half dozen things that people can do to reduce the possibility that their data privacy will be compromised. Among them, he listed such steps as preventing data about your location from being generated, and supporting products and tools that care about individual privacy more than do some of their competitors – for example, using “DuckDuckGo” rather than Google.
For people who want to educate themselves on these topics, Wagner said that the book Data and Goliath by Twin Cities resident Bruce Schneier would be an excellent source. In response to a question from the audience, he noted that attitudes toward privacy appear to be changing, with Millennials and Generation X members less concerned about it than older generations – a trend that Wagner said he finds troubling.
Wagner urged his audience to educate themselves about policy issues involving privacy, and to be active in supporting organizations – for example, the Electronic Frontier Foundation – that oppose incursions on individuals’ digital data privacy.
[Note: Wagner’s PowerPoint presentation to the Emeriti Association is available here.]