The New Yorker Festival's Tech@Fest – Cyber Privacy

Published: October 5, 2015 9:00 AM /


NYer Tech Fest Cyber Privacy

The first time I visited the World Trade Center it was an entirely different building. I returned to the location on Saturday, October 3rd to attend The New Yorker's Tech@Fest, a technology-centered series of events during their annual New Yorker Festival.

The building itself was certainly awe-inspiring. I entered through the Vesey St. entrance and picked up my ticket for the first event I would be attending: Cyber Privacy - Who Owns Your Information? This 90-minute event would be a panel discussion led by The New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos. It featured lecturer & author Barton Gellman, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation Cindy Cohn, and Gawker Media founder & chief executive Nick Denton.

"There was never a social movement in this country or any others that didn’t start with a private conversation." — Cindy Cohn

I arrived a bit early and partook in a cup of coffee in a side room while I waited for the event to start. A looping video was projected on the wall —a series of still images of a model dressed in the kigurumi style, a type of cosplay (short for "costume play"). This piece by Laurie Simmons was titled "Ringtone" and billed as "An Exclusive Tech@Fest Experience." The video and its accompanying music were a delightful piece of art, and if you're ever curious to see kigurumi in person, you need only attend your nearest anime or comics convention. You'll be sure to find cosplayers of all sorts, kigurumi included. 

The event opened with a short video. It first featured a clip of a Hillary Clinton interview discussing her e-mail scandal. This was followed by a portion of an interview with President Barack Obama discussing the NSA and how exactly it spies on American citizens. After that was a bit of an Edward Snowden interview discussing the NSA spying. A few more incidental clips under the theme of cybersecurity and privacy capped off the opening montage, such as a scene from the USA show Mr. Robot. A member of the staff walked in and announced the event was going to start shortly just as I was finishing my caffeinated pick-me-up and getting lost in the lovely scenery of the New York City skyline. I walked down the hall and found myself in a room that seated two hundred people at most. After most everyone was settled in, the panelists silently entered from the same door as the attendees and walked past the audience directly to the stage.

"I wanted to write the stories that raised questions about the boundaries of power.” — Barton Gellman

The audience was polled with a few simple questions. Many people in the audience raised their hands when asked how many of them felt that companies such as Apple, Microsoft, and Google ought to make it impossible for governments to crack their devices. When presented with a hypothetical situation where the mayor of New York City had to get into a digital device in order to prevent an imminent terrorist act, very few people felt that he should be able to have that sort of access.

Cindy Cohn brought up an interesting quandary regarding body cameras; many people would argue that they serve a public good in keeping both the police and the citizenry safe and accountable, but what about if the government were to integrate face recognition technology with them? A tool of accountability could very easily be turned into yet another tool of government surveillance.

Barton Gellman—who has interviewed Edward Snowden in Moscow, one of many feathers in his cap—discussed the wide range of surveillance capabilities and how the leaks by Edward Snowden changed how they operate. The US surveillance apparatus has been reigned in slightly by the public revelation of its existence, but more importantly many companies have now started using encryption in all of their traffic to make man-in-the-middle data collection that much more difficult.

"I’d say the biggest danger to most people is not the government ... Your own personal destruction is only an email away." — Nick Denton

Nick Denton was, to my mind, an interesting choice for this panel. While Cindy Cohn and Barton Gellman were clearly advocates of online privacy and cybersecurity, Nick Denton was a man who built a media empire on exploiting the weaknesses of it. Gawker, and its sister properties, have made millions talking about all sorts of celebrity news, many of which include leaked private data such as voice mails.

One particularly troublesome bit of leaked celebrity data that has Gawker in hot water is their choice to publish excerpts from Hulk Hogan's sex tape. Nick Denton made the argument that his site publishing the sex tape was an act of journalistic value as the subject of Hulk Hogan's sex life was talked about publicly by Hulk Hogan himself.

Nick Denton also brought up the question of where the line of "privacy" is drawn. The house where the sex tape was recorded had security cameras. Does that remove the usual expectation of privacy one would have in the bedroom? What about the inclusion of a third person in the amorous encounter involving Hulk Hogan?

If there was any one thing I took away from this panel, it was the idea of accountability. The average everyday person reusing the same password makes all of their accounts vulnerable. Companies failing to take important security measures against government intrusion makes all of your online activity vulnerable. And if you're a celebrity—a term that is becoming more broad in definition every day—you may find something that you hoped would remain private on the front page of an online tabloid such as Gawker.

Security of your digital data is ultimately your own responsibility. The instant something is made digital—be it a journal entry, a photograph, a video, or something else entirely—it is terrifyingly easy for it to be uploaded to the Internet and potentially be seen by thousands or even millions of people. If you're not careful with your digital footprint, there are people, corporations, and even governments who are more than willing and ready to exploit it for their own benefit.

The ticket for this event was provided courtesy of The New Yorker.

Do you think your online presence is as secure as it could be? What tools or methods do you use to keep yourself safe in the digital world? Let us know in the comments below!

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A photograph of TechRaptor Senior Writer Robert N. Adams.
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