Security/Privacy in Digital Society

This is an opportune moment to announce my participation with other professors at Washington University at St. Louis in an initiative on “The Digital Society.” This innovative course will be offered to undergraduates, and will feature thinkers from all schools at the university. Drawing on my work on security and private computation (here and here), I will be representing the medical school to teach about “Genomic Medicine in Digital Society.”

This is an opportune moment because of the ongoing conflict between the FBI and Apple about customer privacy and IPhone security (summary here, here and here).

Briefly, the FBI requested Apple change the IPhone software to make it easier for them to hack into a terrorist’s phone. Apple refused and then FBI sued them. Then the FBI figured out to hack into the IPhone without them, and now Apple is suing the FBI.  Now, in this charged situation, we are considering together how to balance national security and personal privacy in our digital society.

This episode highlights how the Digital Society is driving questions of security and privacy in our world, but this is just the beginning…


The Digital Society

Patrick Crowley, Professor of Computer Science & Engineering

Neil Richards, Professor of Law

Our modern Digital Society is both exciting and challenging. As the effectiveness of computing advances, and digital technologies like the Internet and algorithmic decision-­making affect and penetrate more and more aspects of our lives, we face extraordinary opportunities and equally extraordinary challenges. Computer-driven automation increases our quality of life but eradicates our jobs! The Internet and Smartphones keep us connected but subject us to growing corporate, government and criminal surveillance!

In this course, co-­taught by professors from the Schools of Engineering and Law, we will examine the fundamental technical underpinnings of Digital Society and its consequences. We will discuss “Welcome to the Future,” “The Future of Jobs,” and “The Future of Humans.” All aspects of life are evolving rapidly in our Digital Society, and we will draw on expert and engaging guest speakers from all seven Schools of Washington University and intellectual leaders from beyond our campus to share their perspectives and insights.

This course will help students to perceive the modern world in new ways in order to better understand how technological shifts are changing and challenging notions of individual and collective prosperity. Our goal is to give students both the technical understanding of how our new technologies work and the critical skills to evaluate them for themselves as citizens and leaders of our new Digital Society.

We envision the course as having three modules. Module One, “Our Information­-Centric World” will lay out the basic elements and issues of the course ­ the technological advances and the social challenges that they raise. These include the nature of the technological revolution, how the Internet works, and how to think about security and privacy. This module will serve as an introduction and overture ­ introducing the main themes of the course, stimulating the students’ interest in these questions, and equipping them with the technical, analytical, and critical skills to make sense of and engage deeply with the more in­depth materials which follow in the other Modules.

Module Two, “The Future of Work” will tackle the question of what work in a Digital Society might look like. We will examine the advances in automation, artificial intelligence, and robotics, and think deeply about what work will look like as machines increasingly perform human tasks in an automated workplace. We will look at the issues raised by cloud computing, remote connectivity, and outsourcing to examine how a physical, shared location for work is no longer necessary, and what that means for employers and human workers. We will also examine the “gig” or “sharing economy” represented by companies like Uber, and ask hard questions about the tradeoffs between consumer convenience and worker rights and power.

Module Three,“The Future of Humans” shifts the focus from individuals as workers to individuals as human citizens,consumers, and patients. We will challenge the students to think hard about what roles humans can and should play in a Digital Society whose final form is not inevitable.