Sometimes, school and the hyperactive “Type faster! Why are you wasting time on sleep!” rhythm of student life (particularly in the final weeks of term) overwhelm me and it’s easy to lose sight of why I’m here, in a haze of deadlines and emails and the faint cries of “GRE! GRE!” in the distance. At times like these, my means of getting into the mindspace of academics might be called counterintuitive: I back away from the lecture notes and learn about something that is in no way (or at best, distantly) related to my coursework. Some may call this procrastination, but for me, it is both re-energizing and necessary. So, last Thursday, this is exactly what I did.
With one of my mildly-reluctant but too-polite-to-decline-my-invitation friends in tow, I attended a talk at Hart House titled, “Cyber-Security: Bytes, Frights, and Spooks” presented by three Toronto-area researchers in computer and information security. In this talk, I learned important things like why Facebook loves my face, and why my blogging for lifeatuoft could one day – somehow – come back to haunt me.
The first speaker, Andrew Clement, discussed the fact that when I send an email from Toronto to a friend in Vancouver, it’s quite likely that my email is being routed through intermediate internet nodes in the United States, and is consequently subject to the US Patriot Act. He also discussed recent attempts at legislation in Canada that change the way Canadian information is managed, and who exactly can access all of these “private” digital fingerprints of ours.
The second speaker, Joseph Ferenbok, gave a compelling explanation of how photos of ourselves on Facebook can be used to create permanent means of searching for our faces through the endless sea of digital photos on the internet, and how facial-recognition algorithms applied to Facebook photos can and will change the ways in which we live as private citizens by reducing the anonymity of individuals in daily life.
The third speaker, Robert Latham, encouraged us to ask ourselves what is truly at stake when we release seemingly innocuous information about ourselves online, and to consider what we believe to be our basic digital rights. He challenged us to consider the tradeoffs between personal privacy and regional, national, or international notions of “security”, both in the current state of technology, as well as in the future.
I left the discussion politically-charged, intellectually-curious, and with some new ideas about how my field (Artificial Intelligence) ties into the future projections for how our digital lives are catalogued, searched, and used for or against us. It goes far beyond the popular-media concerns about future employers seeing images of you in a Ninja Turtles costume after a few too many cocktails, and into the deeper and more significant realms of personal profiling and how free we can really be as more and more of our private lives are – willingly or unwillingly – shared.
Talks like these excite me not just in their specific content, but in the open and expressive dialogue between arts and sciences – indeed, as though the line between the two were not to exist at all. Everything – from low-level computer code, to complex organisms – carries political, social, and existential weight. The university, above all, is a place where disciplines can and must talk to each other, because the categories in which we place our ideas – ethics, cryptography, media studies, law – do not actually exist in the great big world outside. The problems that we will need to solve in our lifetimes are unrelenting, bold, and integrative.
And with any luck, so are we.