Revisit Computers, Freedom, and Privacy Conference Online
Robyn Fizz and Susan B. Jones
Electronic money. Cryptography. Crime and law in cyberspace. Copyright
and freedom of expression. If these topics prick up your ears, you
probably attended, or at least heard about, the Sixth Conference on
Computers, Freedom, and Privacy (CFP96). Hosted by MIT and the World
Wide Web Consortium, CFP96 was held in late March at the Cambridge Hyatt
If you didn't attend the conference, you can still get a good sense of
what went on there. The CFP96 home page at
has a hypertext schedule of events. Even better, there are links to
daily reports from the conference and to RealAudio recordings of the
plenary sessions. If there's a session that piques your interest, you
can listen to it from your desktop, as long as you have RealAudio
installed on your computer. Note: For details about RealAudio,
The Daily News
A group of students - John Dillon, Kevin Fu, Ben Gross, Sam Hartman, and
Daniel Stevenson - produced a daily online newsletter that reported on
CFP96 sessions. They often worked far into the night to get their
reports written and on the Web by the next day. You can read their
A Conference Cross-Section
One thing you may not get from the online CFP96 Newsletter is a sense of
the conference's local color. People from the National Security Agency,
CIA, and FBI rubbed shoulders with members of the Electronic Freedom
Foundation. Developers of public-key encryption software - PGP being the
prime example - wrangled with pro-ponents of escrowed encryption - as
exemplified by the government's proposed Clipper Chip. In short, hackers
and cops and everyone in between came to explore and debate how computer
and telecommunications technologies are affecting freedom
Here are a few of the conference highlights.
Before the Court
One of the most dramatic sessions, co-sponsored by the American Bar
Association, was a moot Supreme Court case. Five federal judges and four
advocates for the government and the defense tackled a case related to the
Cryptography Control Act of 1995. The key questions raised by the case were:
As in a real Supreme Court case, there were no witnesses. Lawyers for
both sides presented their arguments and were questioned by the judges.
However, in this instance the judges did not rule on the case. (If they
express an opinion outside a real courtroom, they disqualify themselves
from ruling on such cases later on.) Instead, the verdict was delivered
by a shadow panel of regional law school professors.
- Will Americans be prohibited from ensuring the privacy of their
communications against government
- Will non-escrowed encryption be outlawed, and those who use it
subjected to criminal prosecution?
The shadow panel decided in favor of the defense, but also stated that
if the case were tried in the Supreme Court today, it is unlikely that
the judges would arrive at the same decision.
Limiting Online Speech on Campus
It's not uncommon to read about flare-ups at colleges that involve the
content of messages sent over a campus network. Universities own the
wires and feel responsible for protecting their students, employees,
and public image. Students value privacy, and some have a penchant for
online mischief. In this environment, the limits of free speech are
bound to be tested.
Harvard Law professor Arthur Miller, with a panel drawn from the legal,
journalistic, and university communities, used the Socratic method to
explore some hypothetical situations involving students and online content.
In one scenario, a student intern tells a female TV reporter about a private
all-male mailing list that is rating "sexy coeds" online. The intern hacks into
the mailing list, so that the reporter can eavesdrop. She does a story on the
evening news, naming the men and the student they voted most sexy.
The panelists were asked to consider issues of relationship,
responsibility, and civil rights. A lively discussion ensued.
We Know Where You Will Live
Four science fiction writers - Pat Cadigan, Vernor Vinge, Tom Maddox,
and Bruce Sterling - were asked to share their impressions at the end of
CFP96. Cadigan envisioned a time when we will be taxed at the super-
market checkout for "risks to your health incurred by certain items."
She talked about how we confuse information with knowledge, and the
mistaken notion that improved surveillance in cyberspace can provide
greater protection against terrorism.
Vinge described a post-Orwellian world with ubiquitous law enforcement
(ULE), made possible by "fine-grained distributed systems." A portion of
every microchip would be mandated for government use. Vinge's examples
included "smart" copyright, census-taking and surveillance, tax
collection, and routine enforcement of bureaucratic rules. He cautioned
that each new generation of microchip would give government new
powers and, in the wrong hands, unheard-of control over citizens.
Maddox gave a critique on the "Conference for Computers, Regulation, and
Commerce." He felt that on most of the panels, regulators and marketers
outnumbered the "rabble" who extend the humanity of cyberspace. He
expressed distrust for a government that says "trust us," and
displeasure with marketers who want to corral cyberspace by throwing
dollars around. His contrary conclusion: We are threatened by
government and corporations, not by individuals; by the regulation of
speech, not by its existence; and by controls on cryptography, not by
Sterling wrapped up the conference with an impassioned speech
proclaiming disorder as the new world order. He spoke about why Prodigy,
with $900 million in backing from IBM and Sears, couldn't compete with
the Internet, that "headless breadmold of a network." He characterized
1996 as a time of corporate anorexia, road warriors with laptops, and
empty political gestures divorced from reality.
In Sterling's view, social structures are visibly coming apart, while
machinery has begun to take on the role of the adult in our society.
Will it take a "digital atrocity" to wake us up? Sterling concluded
CFP96 by asking, "Where is our future? If you come up with something,
Back to CFP96 home page
Last updated June 28, 1996