The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 26.0°F | A Few Clouds

Conference Focuses On Computer Privacy

By Fenny Lin

The Sixth Conference on Computers, Freedom, and Privacy held March 2730 brought together over 500 experts and advocates from fields such as computer science, public policy, and government to discuss how computer and information technologies are affecting freedom and privacy.

Hosted jointly by MIT and the World Wide Web Consortium, the conference addressed four major issues: intellectual property, personal privacy, encryption, and the determination to preserve cultural diversity in the online world.

The four-day conference began with tutorials, and consisted of various workshops and panels. Harold Abelson, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, organized the conference.

The keynote speaker was George Metakides, director of research and development for the European Strategic Program for Research and Development in Information Technologies.

Metakides spoke about the four fundamental issues in his keynote address. Concerning intellectual property laws, he emphasized the need to build from countries' current intellectual property laws, rather than starting from the drawing board.

The encryption debate is an important issue in which individuals and businesses' need for security and privacy is weighed against government's responsibility to fight crime and protect national interests, he said.

Currently, laws vary greatly from country to country. The consensus in Europe seems to be the use of "trusted third parties" for key escrow. Metakides urged governments to arrive at some international agreements on the use of cryptography.

If this doesn't happen, commercial crypto plug-ins, such as that of the Microsoft Corporation, could be sold in some countries and not others. "That would be a bad thing," said Metakides. "It would be bad for the global information infrastructure."

In the final portion of his speech, Metakides spoke about the struggle to maintain cultural and national identities on the web.

One overriding issue at the conference was cryptography, which was the topic of the thursday morning session. The session was introduced by Dorothy Denning, professor of computer science at Georgetown University, followed by the two panelists, Michael Nelson and Nick Mansfield.

Nelson is one of the White House's chief information technology experts. He gave his presentation on U.S. policy. Then, Mansfield, who oversees electronic communications issues for Shell Oil Companies, delivered his business point of view on the necessity of international cryptography standards.

Nelson, the most controversial panelist at the conference, started by stressing that although the Clipper Chip was unsuccessful on the market, it brought national attention to cryptography control problems.

"Good encryption that you and I can use for our privacy can be used by criminals and terrorists," Nelson said.

Through various strategies, cryptography can protect these criminals, Nelson said. The most feasible strategy combines "cryptochaos" - having varying regulations in different countries - and adopting a government key escrow system.

During the conference, Senator Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) announced his bill that proposes to scrap almost all existing federal restrictions on the export of encryption software.

On Friday, a bipartisan group of Congressmen announced to the conference the formation of the Congressional Internet Caucus.