Workshop on Freedom and Privacy by Design

By Marc Waldman

Privacy Workshop Packs House

Can a system be designed in such a way that it guarantees strong protection of civil liberties? That was the main theme of the Workshop on Freedom and Privacy by Design held on April 4th.

The workshop, chaired by Lenny Foner, brought cryptographers, programmers and system architects together with experts on the issues of freedom and privacy for the purpose of discussing how to design systems that can secure civil liberties. The workshop discussions centered around three projects. The first project was a proposed replacement of the Domain Names systems (DNS). The domain name system is a hierarchical naming scheme that is primarily used to translate domain names, such as "" into IP addresses such as "20.72.120". It is the IP address to route packets of data around the Internet. Although the DNS systems works very well, it posses certain characteristics that make it, from a civil liberties point of view, less than ideal. The unique nature of domain names allows the first company or individual that purchase a domain name to have complete control over it. This leads to "land grabs" where a company purchases all domain names that are in some way connected to its business. This results in rapid exhaustion of the DNS namespace and also prevents smaller companies or individuals from acquiring these domain names. The unique mapping of domain names to IP addresses also makes anonymous publishing very difficult. The DNS system does not provide a mechanism to hide the true IP address of a particular domain name.

The DNS replacement discussion consumed the morning session. Rebecca Wright of AT&T Research Labs described the challenges and obstacles to building such a systems. These challenges include complying with existing laws and industry standards. A particular system, in order to gain widespread acceptance, must be easy to use.

Alma Whitten of Carnegie-Mellon University gave a brief talk concerning user interface design for privacy enhancing technologies. Alma stated that developers of privacy enhancing technologies all too often expect the average user to understand complex topics such as key distribution and digital signatures. An incomplete understanding of these topics can lead an individual to unknowingly revealing sensitive information such as secret passwords.

After the two brief talks, there was a moderated discussion of the DNS system. Discussion topics included the need for a hierarchical naming system, the role of search engines and the need to preserve the underlying DNS.

The second project concerning ways to motivate business to protect their customer's civil liberties. David Phillips of the University of Texas at Austin discussed the activities of anti-nuclear activities and how they could be adapted by civil liberties activists. John Gilmore of the Electronic Frontier foundation discussed the free software movement and described starting the free software company Cygnus.

The moderated discussion that followed focused mainly on ways of convincing businesses to better protect individual privacy. There was also discussion on what form a privacy "Chernobyl" would take --- that is an event that would cause average users demand greater privacy protection from the companies they deal with.

The third project concerned "anonymous" cash-cash that cannot necessarily be traced back to a particular individual. Companies that issue credit and debit cards routinely use data mining techniques to discover the buying habits of individuals. This allows them to target specific advertising at the individual that owns the card. Anonymous cash systems would prevent this type of targeting advertising and therefore the credit card companies have little incentive to get involved with anonymous cash. The moderated discussion suggested various methods to coax credit cash companies to issue anonymous cash cards.