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University of Utah students explore ethics of 'big data'

Published: Friday, Dec. 13 2013 6:23 p.m. MST

XMission founder Pete Ashdown was one of three members of a panel Friday to discuss with University of Utah students the role of the National Security Agency and the rising generation's role in protecting anonymity.

Jordan Allred, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — University of Utah students who gathered Friday to hear a panel discussion on the ethics of "big data" were asked if any of them had consented to the iTunes user agreement.

Nearly every hand was raised.

XMission founder Pete Ashdown then asked which of them actually read the agreement. All hands dropped but one.

"That's the kind of difficulty we have in the Internet age," Ashdown said.

To fully understand what consent means, especially with big companies that change their agreements frequently, he said, people likely need a computer science degree and about 30 years of experience in the field.

Ashdown was one of three members of a panel to discuss with students the role of the National Security Agency and the rising generation's role in protecting their anonymity.

James Bamford, author of multiple books on the NSA, said some of the information that came forward after Edward Snowden leaked details of the agency's surveillance program was that companies such as Google didn't encrypt their data.

Bamford said that means the NSA doesn't have to go through the "front door" of getting a warrant to access information.

"They have the back door that gives them everything they want anyway," he said.

The problem won't be solved with an increased degree of encryption, Bamford said. Instead, "it needs to be an effort by the grass roots to change what's going on in Washington and the NSA," he said.

Students were enthralled during the nearly 90-minute discussion, with several offering questions about how to hold the NSA accountable, how to build trust with companies, and how involved the rising generation should be.

"I think this generation of students we have right now has the opportunity to continually raise the question of the issues of transparency and accountability," said Eric Denna, chief information officer at the University of Utah. "This is going to require a structural change."

Denna said while there is explicit consent about personal information, one "uncharted territory" is the question about online behavior.

"As we begin to wonder around something like Amazon, Amazon is constantly using our activity to try to shape the service for us," he said.

And even though the company is not necessarily looking for secrets, Denna said, it is watching its customers' online shopping habits.

Ashdown said there is a trade-off between convenience and privacy.

"If you want absolute privacy, you can live in a cash-only world and not use the Internet," he said.

Ashdown said he appreciates when he shops at Amazon and receives an email that the item he recently browsed is on sale. But he questions when such companies will be offered incentives from the government to share that information.

University of Utah student Tanner Hall said it is “creepy” knowing the access the NSA has to his personal information.

“It’s important for us to know about this stuff going forward,” Hall said. “It’s really hard to go someplace and not have access to the Internet anymore. And anytime you’re on the Internet, you’re exposed to the NSA.”

Using Google to search for a vacation destination or about a recently diagnosed disease is a way Bamford said the NSA essentially has access to people's thoughts.

"Once the NSA gets access to all of that, they're not just getting access to what you're saying, but they're getting access to the information in terms of what you're thinking," he said. "That's where we've got to start putting some regulations on what they can and can't do."

Bamford also said with the amount of information being collected, the NSA has a terrible track record.

"The bigger you make the haystack, the harder it is to find that one little electronic needle in there," he said, referring to situations such as 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombing where the "eavesdropping network" failed.

"They found out about all those incidents from a $300 television set on the wall tuned to CNN,” Bamford said. "That’s not supposed to be the way if we’re paying all this money and giving up all this privacy for them to catch these terrorists. The problem is they're collecting way too much information than they can ever do anything with."

U. student Laramie Riggs said she attended the panel to become "more aware" about how her personal information is being accessed and used.

"Being more aware of our actions and how we fit into the government is really valuable for us to take away from this," Riggs said.

Email: eeagar@deseretnews.com

Twitter: EmileeEagar

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