Event Report: Computers, Freedom, and Privacy Conference 2014

What: Computers, Freedom, and Privacy Conference 2014

Where: Airlie Center, Warrenton, VA

Date: June 8-10, 2014

This year’s Computers, Freedom, and Privacy Conference (#CFP2014) was held during an extraordinary time in the history of computers, freedom, and privacy. The Edward Snowden NSA revelations of 2013 made the task of privacy experts more pressing and certainly added to the energy of this year’s conference. Attendees included a former governor of Pennsylvania, a congressman, a former general counsel of the NSA, leaders of NGOs, cryptographers, whistleblowers, and drone experts from as far as Australia. Of course, the usual cadre of DC-area policy wonks and lawyers were in attendance as well.

Surprisingly, this was the 24th CFP conference; in other words, this generation’s cyber-related privacy concerns are not as original as I expected. Many people’s first impressions of cyber security issues are that it is “hot” or “in.” As the long provenance of the CFPs attests, cyber-related privacy issues may be “hot and in” but certainly not “new.” Furthermore, the professionals who attended this conference were truly seasoned in this field and have had decades of experience to draw from. The prestigious list of sponsors includes Google, Facebook, Internet Society, Access Now, FPF, CDT, Internet Infrastructure Coalition, Kelley Drye, and StartMail; that alone is a statement to the serious nature of this conference…and that some of the most controversial corporations in terms of privacy still sponsored a conference that examined them so critically.

The most striking aspect of this conference, though, perhaps even overshadowing the caliber of the speakers, is the private nature of a privacy-oriented conference. For instance, attendees were offered the choice of blue or white neck lanyards to hold their nametags; a blue lanyard indicated an OK for photography and a white lanyard indicated a NO for photography. Some speakers were offered the option of being concealed on video behind digital masks to hide their identity from particular sovereign countries. Some panel participants opted to stand to the side of the panel table, beyond the range of video cameras recording a session. There were conference attendees who only introduced themselves by their initials or one-word pseudonyms. Aluminum foil faraday cage sleeves were given out for attendees to protect leakage of digital information from RFIDs embedded on ID and credit cards. Attendees were also given the opportunity to register for StartMail (a sponsor) and generate PGP keys for digital signatures and encryption. Last, attendees seeking ride-share opportunities only identified themselves by Twitter handles. As one can imagine, there were not many #selfies being taken.

Of the sessions that I attended, a few were particularly noteworthy. The first night activity was a panel on drones introduced by a breathtaking live demonstration hosted by DC Area Drone User Group (ironically named, as drones are banned from Washington, DC).  Former governor of Pennsylvania and first Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge addressed the conference, suggesting that the US Department of Homeland Security is a leading agency in promoting libertarianism and civil rights; for instance, he emphasized that all of his DHS agents carried a card with DHS’s principles, which included “preserving freedom” as the first and foremost principle of DHS. Marcy Wheeler, a journalist who is known for her work covering the Scooter Libby trial and waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, discussed her experiences under surveillance. Stewart Baker, former general counsel of the NSA, faced difficult questioning from a relatively hostile audience during a question-and-answer session. Sessions on surveillance-evading tools featured demonstrations of Tor, Glimpse, PGP, StartMail, and others. On the other hand, there were sessions demonstrating surveillance devices that are suspected to invade the privacy of others. There were also sessions on cryptography, women in technology, the right to be forgotten by online data collectors, resources for privacy advocates, and more. Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL 9th District) closed the conference.

In all, I had a very good and memorable time at the conference; Amie Stepanovich and Nuala O’Connor were phenomenal organizers (and supervisors). Attendees were very friendly and eager to introduce me to others with similar interests. For those considering attending in the future, the fashion du jour was casual, business dress, eclectic, cowboy, and…don’t worry about it. Most sessions were recorded and are available at the CFP2014 website (incomplete as of June 11, 2014) and will soon be posted on YouTube. There were also plenty of volunteer opportunities; in the interests of full disclosure, I attended for free because I volunteered to help with the A/V.

Jonathan Berliner is a research fellow at CSPRI. He has studied at Columbia University and The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He is interested in the policy and technical aspects of cryptography, cyber security, and surveillance.