Communication
May 7, 2012

Zero sum game: privacy or security

CGE Vol. 14 No.4 April 2008

Fancy yourself a bit of a geek? Lawrence Lessig has a project for you: Fixing the Internet.

Lessig, a Stanford-based Californian, is in possession of one of the tallest of the tall foreheads that think about cyberstuff. A self-described “privacy nut” and “copyfighter,” he’s particularly exercised these days about the consequences of a turn of events in which technology, once the protector of copyright and privacy, is turning out to be their enemy.

More precisely, he’s worried about the intentions of his government – “they” – on the privacy side of this file. In his view, “they” argue that privacy and security are a “zero sum game” in which you can have one or the other but not both. Does he think “they” are wrong? You bet.

So he kicked off a recent high-level conference on privacy and security with a kind of call to arms to those he affectionately and respectfully calls geeks – the technologists (and their non-technological bosses) who can think their way to a definitive repudiation of the zero-sum argument in privacy and security.

(And yes, Lessig’s pitch embraces managers who do their managing in the public sector. Wait for it).

Lessig’s approach to the privacy-and-security conundrum is grounded in a notion he shares with another of those tall foreheads – Jonathan Zittrain of Oxford and Harvard. Zittrain is particularly known these days for his elaboration of what he calls the “generative” Internet.

In summary form as posited by Zittrain, the generative notion focuses on “the capacity for unrelated and unaccredited audiences to build and distribute code and content through the Internet to its tens of millions of attached personal computers….”

As we all know, however, that creativity has generated more than fun-filled chat among teenagers. It’s also led to countless problems in the form of computer viruses, spam, malware, spyware and all the rest. And, Zittrain insists in the core of his argument, the only way to deal with those problems is to develop a few restrictions in what to date has been the World Wild Web in all its anarchic glory.

(Want more on this? There’s a good start at the Social Science Research Network; go to www.ssrn.com. Or wait a few weeks and pick up a copy of Zittrain’s soon-to-be-published book The Future of the Internet – And How to Stop It).

Meanwhile, Lessig focuses on some of the brute facts of cyberlife: At least 70 million home computers in the US are infected with zombie botnets, you can bring down any website in the world for $50,000 worth of Denial Of Service, etc. That, he says, has led government to develop a plan for cyber-9/11 – reinvent the Internet to remove the “generative” capacity that so fascinates the likes of Zittrain.

Put plainly if perhaps a little simply, that would necessarily mean sacrificing privacy on the altar of security, as US intelligence czar Donald Kerr was suggesting a few months ago when he floated the idea – in a public forum – that anonymity will have to be “delinked” from privacy.

To Lessig, the only valid response to all this is to somehow demonstrate that privacy and security are not mutually exclusive. “What’s needed here,” he told his mostly public-servant audience in Victoria, “is a kind of leadership…from geeks, from people who know something about how this technology works, from you people, who have worked in this context and know how the technology actually works.”

More specifically, Lessig looks to code for salvation. Some of it would be technical, some would be legal, but the broad result would be to “preserve the values of privacy without blocking all the data that’s out there – and breaking the Internet.”

A strong view, then, strongly argued. But what does it have to do with Canadians at any particular order of public service? Just this: Most of what we know as e-government has come to us by way of Zittrain’s “generative” Internet. And: Most of its future is inextricably tied to more of the same creativity; those tentative experiments with Web 2.0 in a public sector context afford eloquent testimony.

Put another way, if the “e” is in fact to be removed from e-government at some point, as wistfully forecast by assorted evangelists (you know who you are), there’ll be a requirement for a healthy serving of “generative” cyberthought. You’ve got a stake in this game; defend it.

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