Internet Privacy… An Oxymoron?

Columbia Law School Professor Eben Moglen Tells Students Technology Must Be Re-Engineered to Protect Consumer Privacy

New York, April 29, 2013—Technology and the vast amount of data collection it enables are fundamentally changing our lives, Columbia Law School Professor Eben Moglen said recently, telling students it would be up to them as future lawyers to ensure people can maintain a sense of privacy in a world in which nearly everyone carries a GPS-enabled smartphone. 

“We are changing the nature of the human race, and we’re not quite understanding how,” said Moglen, who currently teaches Computers, Privacy and the Law, a course that addresses issues defining the relationship between constitutional order and today’s technological revolution. “At the end of your lifetimes, we’re either going to have found a way to use this technology for good and save human autonomy, or we won’t. I suppose you could decide that will be work done by other lawyers. But if I were you, I wouldn’t jump to that conclusion.”
Moglen was joined by Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, as part of “Brave New World: Frontiers in Internet Privacy,” an April 22 presentation sponsored by the Columbia Law School ACLU chapter. As data storage costs decrease, Wizner said, private companies and the government no longer need to make decisions about how much information they can afford to keep.
“In the past, our principle privacy protection was not law, it was cost,” he said. Now, recording and storing one person’s phone calls for an entire year costs about 15 cents.
Meanwhile, the law has failed to keep pace with technology. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which governs access to electronic records, was enacted in 1986—before the invention of the World Wide Web, Wizner said.
Moglen, chairman and director-counsel of the Software Freedom Law Center, which provides pro-bono legal services to developers of free and open source software, said reclaiming privacy would require changing the way technology works.
“If we re-engineer the cloud, it may be easier than re-engineering the Fourth Amendment,” he said. “Technology is more flexible than law; that’s how we get into the mess. So that’s also probably the way we should get out.”