That it sought power because men in the mass were frail, cowardly creatures who could not endure liberty or face the truth, and must be ruled over and systematically deceived by others who were stronger than themselves. That the choice for mankind lay between freedom and happiness, and that, for the great bulk of mankind, happiness was better.” George Orwell, 1984.

If you haven’t read 1984 as an adult, it might be worth a refresh.

Just like last year, privacy was again a big deal at SXSW 2015. “Data (in)Security: MIT Scientists Tackle Privacy” saw three MIT pros, y’know, tackle privacy. Although they promised to completely solve all issues pertaining to privacy within 45 minutes, they didn’t. But, they did provide some thought provoking considerations and opinions – and at least one really interesting idea that gave some confidence that there might be smart enough people in the world to crack a serisously complex and important problem. With debate about data retention happening in Australia right now, it all felt pretty topical.

The panel consisted of:

Danny Weitzner, Principal Research Scientist, MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab.
Ronald Rivest, Professor MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab
Sam Madden, Professor MIT CSAIL

Ron Rivest is a legendary cryptographer who has won the Turing Award (like an Oscar for these guys) for his work in making public-key cryptography useful in practice. Whilst a lot of the incredibly technical stuff went a little over my head, Ron highlighted three really interesting areas they are looking at where privacy will play a bigger and bigger role: Making election ballots secret,  making payments anonymous (bitcoin is pseudo-anonymous) and how computers can work with encrypted data. That last one is fascinating because if computers do do computations on data without encrypting it, it means that organisations and companies that don’t have or need permission to see individual data, can still work with it.

Sam Madden pointed that there is a big tension between privacy vs. public good when it comes to ‘big data’. He talked through a few areas where aggregating people’s data can do great things. It’s not all bad. For example, MIT is working with enough hospitals to aggregate medical records to help significantly reduce deaths resulting from some diseasese. Whilst sharing medical records is obviously a concern and needs to be carefully scrutinised, the value in finding patterns and ideas via analysis of this data could only be realised a vast range of datapoints from across the US.

But the concept that really gave me hope, was something that was discussed called ‘Accountable systems’. An accountable system has like an overlay that looks at how data is being used in a database and looks for misuse and can hold individuals or groups accountable. It’s like a set of rules that wrap around a database that look at logs and combine them with policies and language to come up with an assessment. The real importance of this was evident in the quote that Danny Weitzner put up which reffered to a judge that said even when he issues the NSA an order, he has no way of determining if they’re acting in accordance. Accountable systems should really help protect us by closely linking not just whether a company has our data – but how they use it.

In closing, the panel asked the audience to raise their hands if they were concerned about privacy (everyone), if they used social networks (most) and if they encrypted their email (hardly anyone). It seems that at the moment the amount of concern in the community may not actually result in much action. I’ve got a feeling this is going to be one of the biggest social issues of the next 20 years so we’re probably going to have start holding our governments and companies to account – unless we want Big Brother’s world to be ours.

Dave.