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Vol.26, No. 19 Apr. 9, 2001

Is Privacy a Casualty of the Digital Age?

By Suzanne Trimel

Leading thinkers on how the Internet is eroding privacy rights—and what can be done to halt digital incursions into our lives—will debate the topic at a public forum on Tues., April 24, hosted by Columbia’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Marconi International Fellowship Foundation.

The high-level forum will bring together experts on telecommunications, computer technology and security and privacy activists and authorities.

Moderated by Zvi Galil, an encryption expert and dean of engineering at Columbia, participants will include Whitfield Diffie, whose breakthrough formulations 25 years ago established the key to secure electronic communications; John Podesta, White House chief of staff under former President Clinton and now visiting professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center; Michael Rabin, professor of computer science at Harvard, who has developed a computer security code based on a “vanishing” key; author and journalist Steven Levy, whose books Crypto and Hackers explore privacy in the information age; Shari Steele, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Association, which advocates for civil liberties online, and Eli Noam, an authority on telecommunications strategy and policy at Columbia Business School.

The 2001 Marconi Forum on Internet Privacy is a collaboration between Columbia’s engineering, business and journalism schools and the Marconi Foundation, which makes its academic home at the Fu Foundation School and each year recognizes creative work in telecommunications and information technology and its benefit to humanity through a $100,000 fellowship.

In an age of electronic communications and financial transactions, Web users want assurances that their messages or e-commerce will remain private without worrying that their ideas, or even their identities, are stolen and every detail of their lives laid bare while others profit from personal data collection.

Digital threats arise from all quarters, including corporations and marketing firms, potential employers and credit agencies, health and government establishments, as well as outright snoopers and opportunists. The stakes are high. Online retailers need to track users’ surfing and buying habits better and to create profiles that are more easily shared among marketers. But these methods have led to a consumer backlash and consumers have stepped up demands for control of their private data and accountability from online companies.

Pressure is mounting from consumer groups and others to rein in cyber-snoops. No fewer than seven bills have been proposed on Capitol Hill, even as several recent privacy incursions in the corporate world have focused a spotlight on the issue. Most notable was the public outcry that greeted the Web ad network doubleClick’s proposal to link online web-surfing with off-line consumer databases.

The two-hour forum will address whether improved technologies can protect privacy on the Internet and will consider recent developments, such as Microsoft’s proposed high-tech solution to the privacy problem, the P3P system, which lets consumers choose how much protection they want by adjusting their own Web browsers.

The panel will be invited to respond to questions from guests from industry, academia, publishing and government in the audience.

“Privacy Under Assault: Can Encryption Safeguard the Internet?” will get underway at 4 p.m. in the Davis Auditorium of the Schapiro Center for Engineering and Physical Science Research.