Privacy vs. Security

INTRO: For months now, the staff of Scientific American has been planning a global summit on privacy and security in the digital age, addressing such issues as balancing the right to privacy against intrusion in the name of safety. Since September 11th, the summit has taken on a new urgency and its agenda has made sort of a u-turn. John Rennie is editor-in-chief of Scientific American. He’s back with us this morning with information about our new priorities.

MELISSA: You were planning this way before any of this happened.

JOHN RENNIE: Because of the information revolution, the rise of the internet and computers, over these past ten years, people have had a lot of concerns about privacy and security, but mostly they’ve been thinking about it in terms of trying to keep their personal information secure. They were worried about losing their privacy to the prying eyes of government, or to businesses, or to hackers looking to steal their information. As of September 11th, all of a sudden, we’ve all been reminded of our own mortality. And now, people’s security concerns go much more to how do we keep ourselves safe, our persons safe, our loved one safe; and now the whole issue of what kinds of trade-offs in our privacy are we willing to make in terms of keeping ourselves save has taken on all this entirely new kind of urgency.

MM: Really, there have only been a few times in history that I think this kind of structure has changed; it’s always been given, I want my civil rights protected first. Now, you ask maybe one out of two people is going to say “no”. Right now, yes, people say we want to give up our rights, just whatever we can do to stay safe, but will we get them back?

JR: That sort of concern goes back to the American Revolution. I think Benjamin Franklin had said that anyone who’s willing to trade off an essential liberty for a temporary safety, deserved neither. That kind of concern about personal privacy has always been there as part of the American character. And it’s going to be a real ongoing issue. Strangely, it is different for Americans than it is for people from a lot of other parts of the world. Americans have been much less willing to trust their government, and they tend to have relatively few rules, but they’ve enforced them much more. A lot of times, other countries have many more rules, but they don’t enforce them as tightly.

MM: What are you finding as you began to form a summit, and now after the attacks… you’re going to talk a lot with the business sector… you’re bringing leaders together to talk about it. Are they saying anything different to you now? N

JR: Very much. When Scientific American went into its organization of this global summit on privacy and security, our plan always was that we wanted to try to bring together leaders from the business world and government, and from technology and academia because we felt that by starting that type of dialogue, it was the only way we were ever going to solve those problems. Now, even after September 11th, we think that’s fundamentally still true. But all of our own advisors, all of the participants in our seminar are telling us that now, they see these kinds of personal safety issues as they relate to security as much more pressing than the old data privacy issues.

MM: Give me an example of one of the issues in the business community. What are the ways they DID want to keep their information private, like encryption?

JR: Encryption is probably a perfect case, because the past encryption concerns (encryption being a way to code your information so that it can’t be read by someone else). One of the big controversies that ‘s been going on for a number of years now, has been, should businesses be able to encrypt their information in ways that the government would not be able to break it to look for illegal activity. There’s probably been a strong suspicion of government in the past few years, and a tendency to say, “no”, we don’t want this very strong kind of encryption in place. Now, everyone’s very concerned about terrorism, and people are thinking that if the government has this sort of ability to get into encrypted messages, maybe that will help head off future sorts of terrorism incidents. So, this is exactly the kind of thing that we’re dealing with in the privacy summit. Of course, there are similar issues that pop up in the health care world and the financial world. It’s not just business concerns. Even individuals suddenly have to worry about the ways which people can reach through the wires into their homes, look on their computers, and tap into information which we’d all like to keep private.