New international agreements and laws are needed to clarify privacy and security issues for digital communication, according to panelists at a seminar at The University of Hong Kong.

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Anne Cheung, Professor, Faculty of Law, HKU; Stacy Baird, Chair, Data Sovereignty, Asia Cloud Computing Association; Marcelo Thompson, Assistant Professor of Law & Deputy Director, Law and Technology Centre, HKU

Stacy Baird, Chair of Data Sovereignty at the Asia Cloud Computing Association, said that the recent Apple vs FBI case—in which Apple, citing privacy issues, refused to help the FBI decrypt the phone of a terrorist—was the latest manifestation of an ongoing debate.

Baird noted that the case made the public more aware of privacy and security issues, and public opinion turned against the FBI during the dispute. ‘Public concern over privacy overrode security considerations from the FBI,’ he said.

However, the case was resolved when the FBI found a third party to handle the decryption, leaving the security-versus-privacy debate unsettled. Baird said there is a real need for new laws and agreements on such issues, to bring us ‘from the age of the steam engine to the age of the search engine’.

Baird was among law and surveillance experts from Asia, Europe, the US and Canada who spoke at HKU’s Faculty of Law on 13 May, at a seminar titled ‘Who’s Got Your Back? Securing Trust and Agency in a World of Backdoors & Gatekeepers’.   

It was the first event organised by the Digital Asia Hub—an independent, non-profit internet and society think tank based at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre—co-hosted with the JMSC and the Law and Technology Centre at the Faculty of Law.

Ian Brown, Professor of Information Security and Privacy at the Oxford Internet Institute, said there is scope for a ‘coalition of the willing’ to adopt international standards, and that domestic legislation is also critical.

A problem, he said, is that many countries are developing such laws in isolation. ‘Governments are racing around the world to develop privacy laws to protect citizens, but the laws are inconsistent—that’s completely incongruous with the idea of open international data flows,’ he said.

Fieke Jansen, Tactical Technology Collective; Masashi Crete-Nishihata, Research Manager, Citizen Lab, University of Toronto; Malavika Jayaram, Executive Director, Digital Asia Hub & Fellow, Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard

Fieke Jansen, Tactical Technology Collective; Masashi Crete-Nishihata, Research Manager, Citizen Lab, University of Toronto; Malavika Jayaram, Executive Director, Digital Asia Hub & Fellow, Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard

The second part of the seminar—moderated by Doreen Weisenhaus, Director of the Media Law Project and Associate Professor at the JMSC—focused on how citizens can push for reform, and gain some control over their personal online data.

Masashi Crete-Nishihata, Research Manager of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, introduced the Access My Info app, which helps users query telecommunications providers on how they collect their users’ data and share it with third parties.

Fieke Jansen of the Tactical Technology Collective spoke about the multi-million-dollar industry that ‘revolves around trading our data’, and suggested strategies technology users could adopt ‘to make it less bad’. These include carefully choosing which technology platforms are used, exploring what data they are allowing to be tracked (such as satellite navigation coordinates) and determining which can be influenced. ‘Maybe leave your phone at home one day to break your behavioural pattern,’ she also said.

Malavika Jayaram, Executive Director of the Digital Asia Hub and Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, said another way for individuals to protect themselves is to ‘jam the system with other data’, publishing less important information online (such as meal details and times) in order to create ‘noise’ and obfuscate what’s being collected already.

These are interim measures, however, and not the type of clarifying agreements and laws the panelists were advocating. ‘These are difficult issues with law and technology that aren’t going to go away,’ said Brown. ‘Law students of today will be grappling with them for their whole careers.’

Prof. Ian Brown discusses Apple-FBI case and cybersecurity at #whosgotyourbackhk conference #HKU #theta360 – Spherical Image – RICOH THETA

360 degree photo: Ian Brown, Professor of Information Security and Privacy, Oxford Internet Institute, discusses the Apple vs FBI case.

Video recordings from the seminar can be found here (Session 1) and here (Session 2), and click here for more photos.

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