On Thursday, October 13th, Professor Marc Rotenberg, Professor of Law at Georgetown University and President of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, led a discussion at the University of Michigan on privacy and free speech in the internet age. The discussion was held in Mason Hall as part of the University of Michigan LSA Honors program’s “Lunch With Honors” series, and featured a Q&A segment. Rotenberg opined on various developments in electronic privacy, focusing on corporate handling of user data and government surveillance. His general approach to issues of privacy is informed by a combination of educated caution and pragmatism.
This multifaceted stance was evident in professor Rotenberg’s views on Apple’s refusal to provide government officials access to the San Bernardino shooters’ iPhone data. On the one hand, he acknowledged the usefulness of such data in culling terroristic threats; on the other he noted the necessity of strong encryption for personal security against theft. Ultimately he found the latter point a stronger principle, and noted prior incidents wherein government officials requested Apple to beef up security on smartphones. Professor Rotenberg also discussed the usage of artificial intelligence by government entities. While recognizing the efficiency potential of such technologies, he advocated for policies to keep government algorithms transparent. Transparency, he argued, would expose any problematic elements like racial profiling.
Speaking broadly, Professor Rotenberg warned against an ongoing “slippery slope” of user data usage by corporate entities. He referenced his organization’s (EPIC) recent legal struggle against data sharing between social media companies. For example, when Facebook purchased WhatsApp, the world’s most popular instant messaging client, Facebook’s representatives claimed the two user databases would remain separate. However, Rotenberg noted, despite protest from international authorities Facebook quietly integrated the two databases several years later. Much of the difficulty of establishing a legal claim to electronic privacy stems from the gray area information access represents. Professor Rotenberg explained how courts struggle to distinguish between legal injury, denoting the direct negative effects of a breach, and legal harm, denoting a violation of legal rights to privacy. In turn, this confusion allows companies to get away with invasions of privacy, on the grounds that acquired information was not used maliciously.
Professor Rotenberg called for increased awareness of electronic privacy rights and accountability for corporate access to user data. More information about Rotenberg and his organization can be found www.epic.org.