November 17, 2006

ACLU speaker discusses digital rights

Nicole Ozer, the Technology and Civil Liberties Policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union, delivered a talk entitled “Civil Liberties in a High Tech World” to a crowded lecture hall at the Law School on Monday.

Matt Zimmerman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a San Francisco–based nonprofit group that works to protect digital rights, also participated in the discussion.

Ozer’s work is mainly in Silicon Valley, and it involves several different types of technological issues. “I ensure that as technology advances, civil rights do not get left behind,” Ozer said.

She discussed such issues as National Security Agency spying, public video surveillance, Internet privacy, and current local and national litigations.

During the talk, Ozer questioned what liberties are given up when one sacrifices safety for physical or personal information. Public video surveillance, which she said is growing more popular in parts of Chicago and cities around the world, is one crossroad between civil liberties and technology.

While the goal of these cameras is to stop crime, a 2005 British study at the University of Leicester showed that these cameras have yet to be proven effective. Ozer argued that even if someone does not mind having their image recorded, they might not realize that the recording could be combined with other information. This may later result in a compromise of civil liberties, she said.

Ozer recommended that the audience visit the website, which allows site members to use select surveillance cameras to patrol the Mexican-American border and report suspicious activity.

Ozer also discussed Radio Frequency ID, technology originally designed for commercial use.

“This is a tiny encodable computer chip that can be read without contact,” she said. “So you could be at a protest and someone could scan your card and have your name and information without you knowing.”

Recently, Ozer said, these ID cards were introduced in a California elementary school, where students as young as five years old carried badges so that the school could locate them at any time. Besides the questionable violation of rights, Ozer said the IDs are very easy to access for unauthorized data.

Mentioning different ways people give out personal information—providing one’s zip code at a store, allowing an e-mail service provider to scan e-mail messages, using cell phones, and accessing public wireless Internet—Ozer emphasized caution and reminded the audience to think about where their information is going.

The EFF’s Zimmerman discussed his work dealing with electronic voting and the impact of technology when it conflicts with public interest.