The Privacy Initiative - A Retrospective

Toward the end of the 2020–21 academic year, we held the final event in our Privacy Initiative @ the CDH series. In lieu of concluding remarks, I’d like to take this opportunity to reflect on the purposes, process, and prospects of our Privacy Initiative, and of the broader future of privacy both on and off of campus.

Last summer, I sent my University Administrative Fellowship application to the CDH staff, proposing to convene a series of lectures and workshops focused on digital privacy. But back then, no one could have predicted the world events that would make digital privacy a front-page issue. Before the pandemic, protests, insurrections, and hacks, the problems surrounding digital privacy were merely seething in the background. For example, in 2019, the Internet Society published a report detailing how just a handful of corporations are dominating an increasing majority of internet traffic. Of course, this pattern was observed as early as 2000. But the 2019 report reveals that the internet giants which have accrued the most power are the same ones that profile and target advertisements to their users. Moreover, Shoshana Zuboff’s book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, details how these same actors wield their massive data collections to captivate their users and eliminate commercial competition. At the same time that these bleak truths were coming to light, William Barr was leading a campaign, under the guise of preventing crime, to outlaw end-to-end encryption. It was in this climate, in which Americans felt their health, safety, and freedoms were at risk, that the private messaging tools Signal and Telegram became the most downloaded apps in mid-January 2021.

Dylan Principi smiles at the camera.

Dylan Principi, a Ph.D. candidate in Musicology, led the Privacy Initiative during his tenure as a University Administrative Fellow at the CDH.

My own journey with privacy technology began with an experiment. Proceeding from the simple idea that information about my life should be need-to-know, I wanted to try to limit, as much as possible, the information that I made plainly available to people who didn’t need it. The first phase of my experiment was to stop using Google’s services entirely. Having an Android phone meant that Google likely knew: my complete list of contacts, whom I called and texted, the content of my emails, my web browsing history, and my entire location history over a period of years. And that was just Google!

Over the next few years, my search for private alternatives—to email, search engine, navigation, cloud storage, you name it—taught me a few things. The first is that there are some truly great tools out there, which put greater privacy easily within reach. The second is that every tool has its trade-offs; some offer more privacy but less security, while others protect good-faith users and criminals alike. The greatest lesson I learned is that many tools, no matter how well designed, are only useful if other people use them too. That is what gave me the urge to start a privacy movement on campus: to raise awareness and promote the use of private technology.

When planning the Privacy Initiative events, our goal was not simply to make another space for scholarly discussion, but also to create opportunities to learn about privacy tools as well. That is why our series kicked off with a presentation by Princeton’s Information Security team on their favorite privacy apps. This was a well-attended, energetic event, with over thirty participants who had the chance to pose questions to OIT’s security experts.

During our second event, Sarah Brayne *15, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas-Austin, discussed her book, Predict and Surveil: Data, Discretion, and the Future of Policing, which addresses the nexus of dragnet surveillance, artificial intelligence, and law enforcement in Los Angeles. Her talk not only nuanced the message of the past summer’s protests, it gave a poignant demonstration of how collecting information on a mass scale can translate into power.

Finally, Alison Macrina spoke about her work as the founder of the Library Freedom Project. In addition to clarifying the nature of (individual) privacy as power, as well as the ways librarians can protect (or compromise) the privacy of their patrons, her discussion also dovetailed with Brayne’s, touching on the problems that arise when law enforcement enters the public library.

In all, the series raised a number of relevant questions about the role of privacy in safeguarding personal liberties and in inflecting the circulation of systemic power. It is my hope that the Privacy Initiative @ the CDH has helped form a critical mass of individuals interested in continuing the campus discussion about technology and privacy. I would like to thank Grant Wythoff, Mana Winters, Camey VanSant, and Elizabeth Samios for their invaluable help in producing the series, as well as Meredith Martin, Natalia Ermolaev, and the rest of the CDH staff for their support, without which this series would not have been possible.

Carousel Photo by FLY:D on Unsplash

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