A talk by Bruce Almighty

Went to the Social Study of ICT workshop, “Identity in the Information Society: Security, Privacy, The Future“, at the LSE yesterday. I knew they were not going to talk about social identity, which I would have liked even more, but I was glad to secure a place anyway. The issue of privacy/security tradeoffs was something I had been chewing over for one of the two presentations I am going to give at the ICAS5.

On the previous day, I visited the LSE website to double-check the programme and venue, and found a photo of the keynote speaker Bruce Schneier. He looked so familiar that I thought for a second he was from RHUL. Where must I have seen him??? I then eurekaed that I had actually seen him here. Aha, Bruce Almighty!


When Professor John Ellis from the Dept of Media Arts gave a talk titled “Mundane Witness: Television and the Experience of Modern Life” last Nov, he shared an experience of involuntary recognition of an actor on the street as ‘somebody I know’ – i.e. the media era’s specific kind of familiarity with somebody with whom one is not acquainted. It was just one of those moments. How could I not recognise his name on the programme in the first place? I really am hopeless with names.

Bon bref, Schneier’s talk was very interesting and engaging. He was a natural presenter. I particularly loved a couple of points that he made. One was that behind the “Identification is necessary for security” argument, there is a dangerous notion that identity is tied with its owner’s intentionality. Another is how easily people give away their personal information – for as little as a free burger or a chocolate bar – even though in theory they are in favour of privacy. I have an experience regarding the latter. When the college asks students to fill in a feedback survey, they always offer some prize draws. If you want to be considered for a prize, you have to leave your email address. I always leave mine. I personally find it difficult to resist the idea of winning a prize and say, “I ideologically believe in privacy and therefore no, I won’t give you my contact details.” 😉

With all respect, one thing I didn’t agree with him about though is that he kind of simplified how people came to a decision to compromise their privacy. He pointed out the State’s power and economic incentives. Of course, both are important factors. However, my conclusion is, as I briefly discussed in an earlier post and will present to the ICAS5, the notion of privacy boils down to the value system of a society. To be specific, when the majority of Korean online users said yes to the adoption of the Internet Real Name System, it was not simply that the Government forced them or corporations tempted them by economic incentives. It was more like, as many interviewees of mine put it univocally, “Why do I have to hide my identity if I believe in what I am saying or doing?” How would he explain this? Perhaps he would just be stunned by our naïveté.


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