Given the backdrop of war, tightened national security, and new legislation aimed at expanding government powers, the discussions and debates due to take place at the 13th Annual Conference on Computers, Freedom and Privacy (CFP) in New York this week promises to be lively.
The conference kicks off Wednesday with a focus on computers and privacy post-Sept. 11, and includes sessions on the Total Information Awareness project, and the so-called Patriot II legislation, as well as an address from North America's only Privacy Commissioner, Canada's George Radwanski.
"The first day of the conference really excites me," said Barry Steinhardt, conference chair and director of the Technology and Liberty program at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). "I think attendees will find it of great interest in that we've tried to reflect the current realities."
While past conference issues such as Internet filtering, censorship and international jurisdiction will continue to merit discussion, the focus is on freedom in a time of war - both the U.S.-led war in Iraq and against terrorism.
In this vein, much discussion will be given to legislation put forth in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, such as the Patriot Act, which was passed shortly after the attacks. The Patriot Act gives the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Department of Justice broad new authority to use wiretaps, electronic eavesdropping, and other information-gathering techniques.
Additionally, a new proposal aimed at expanding these powers, which has been dubbed by some as "Patriot II", will be also up for discussion, as will the Total Information Awareness project (TIA). TIA, which is headed by former U.S. National Security Adviser John Poindexter, seeks to collect and store information on individuals in central databases and then use data-mining techniques to detect possible terrorist and criminal activity.
All three government efforts emphasize the use of technology both for data collection and surveillance, making them ripe for CFP discussion.
Also on the agenda are discussions over new passenger profiling measures and the National Crime Information Center criminal database.
"There is a focus, not surprisingly, on the questions of government action," Steinhardt said. "I think what we've learned in the course of the last two years is that the government has unique powers."
Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) noted that these issues are more pressing than some topics discussed at previous conferences because they are less theoretical and important in safeguarding civil liberties.
"There's obviously a great urgency around these issues," Rotenberg said.
And while speakers and attendees of the conference, such as members of the ACLU, EPIC, the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) and various universities will be focusing on how measures proposed and adopted since Sept. 11 impede on civil liberties, Steinhardt said that many invitations extended to government representatives to air their views were refused.
"It's a shame because CFP's great strength is as a forum of debate," Steinhardt said.
Rotenberg said that he was also disappointed more government representatives would not be in attendance.
"I think government officials always have an obligation to defend what they are doing," he said.
However, former representative Bob Barr, a Republican from Georgia, will be giving an address Friday along with New York Democratic representative Jerrold Nadler during a session titled "Keynote from the Right and Left."
Unfortunately, there will not be very many international attendees other than participants from Canada and the EU, Steinhardt said, due to a tightening of visa rules in the U.S.
Still, discussions are due to be lively, with sessions such as "Human Rights and the Internet" and "The Great Firewall of China - Internet Filtering and Free Expression" set to take place.
"CFP has always been marked by thoughtful and formal debate with occasional sparks of weird creativity." Rotenberg noted.
CFP 2003 begins Tuesday with a working group and conference sessions and keynotes begin Wednesday and run through Friday. More information on the conference can be found at http://www.cfp2003.org.