Tech Privacy a Top Concern in Early SXSW Government Panels

Surveillance, data collection and biometrics all topic of debate.


smart phone
Janitors via / CC BY

South by Southwest attendees may not be able to recite the Fourth Amendment on command (unlike yours truly), but two early panels on technology, privacy, and surveillance indicate that protecting this right is important to quite a few of them.

Today officially launches the start of this year's South by Southwest conference here in Austin. Peter Suderman blogged earlier the opening address by Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey). His piece launched the "government" track segment of the conference, running up through Monday. Reason is represented here not just as journalists covering the conference: Suderman, Jacob Sullum, and I are also moderating panels on important policy issues.

Conider my panel, "Get a Warrant: The Fourth Amendment and Digital Data" as a sort of table-setter for tech privacy and surveillance issues that are going to be popping up at several other panels over the next few days. That's how we decided to approach it anyway. Assisted by Sean Vitka of Demand Progress and the advisory committee of Congress' Fourth Amendment Caucus, Neema Singh Guliani, of the American Civil Liberties Union, and Mike Godwin, the media/internet lawyer who helped start the Electronic Frontier Foundation (and also has a famous law you may have heard of), we offered up a sampler platter of top tech surveillance issues in America today.

Our ultimate goal, though, was to help people attending the conference understand that legislators play a key role in helping restrain the surveillance and data collection authorities law enforcement and federal intelligence services have brought to bear against America's own citizens.

Of course, those who read Reason regularly could have nodded along at the information passed along by our panelists. We only touched on each issue for a few minutes, but you can read more about why President Donald Trump's claims of being illegally wiretapped matter about more than just Trump lashing out or some sort of power play over who controls the government (though that does matter, too). An important provision that gives the intelligence community a significant amount of surveillance authority needs to be renewed this year or it will expire. Congress has a vote coming, and Trump's administration has said they don't want anything changed. But civil liberties and privacy groups are calling for reforms.

We touched on border tech searches and the attempts by federal officials to try to essentially intimidate travelers—both foreign visitors and Americans—into granting access to their tech devices. Vitka noted in the panel encryption plays an important role of trying to restrain the government here and likened it to vaccinations and herd immunity. These searches happen because the possibility of access remains. If more or most Americans used tougher encryption to access devices, they'd be denied enough to stop trying. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) is trying to get a law passed to require warrants for these border tech searches.

And we used the Email Privacy Act to help highlight some of the challenges facing privacy supporters in Congress. The Email Privacy Act, which would close an old legislative loophole that allows warrantless access to old emails, passed unanimously in the House of Representatives, but has not been able to get through the Senate. Established Senate leaders (and not just Republicans) have stood in the way of reforming the law, even when it has massive bipartisan support. (And when we polled the audience, many people who followed Edward Snowden's leak coverage nevertheless had no idea that this act even existed.)

Following on the heels of my panel was "Are Biometrics the New Face of Surveillance?" The panel drew a large crowd, given that it's probably the latest "hotness" in how technology is facilitating government snooping. The panel was moderated by Sara Sorcher of the Christian Science Monitor. Panelists included Christopher Piehota of the FBI, there to assure us that the federal government does not violate our privacy with its databases of images, Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing, there to point out that in order for us to trust Piehota the government has to be more transparent about how it's using the databases and to provide us all a dire warning that information collected for one purpose can and will be eventually used for others. He went full Godwin by reminding folks that collected government data that was innocuous at the time was used by the Nazis to track down and round up Jews.

Now that my own panel is done and over with, I'll be spending the next few days attending and covering other panels of interest to those who love both liberty and privacy and want to make sure those values come through when exploring tech innovation.

NEXT: NBC Scores Again with the Hilarious, Manic Trial & Error

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  1. I like the sounds of that “When should my data become government data?” panel – Join this session for a discussion on how our laws balance personal privacy with the necessity of government access to data for our security and how we are updating these laws. Because it’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when and it just seems so rude to object to your friendly neighborhood government agents reading over your shoulder 24/7. For your own safety.

  2. Welcome to Austin and I hope you have a lovely time. Get some good Mexican food — Fresa’s on S. First is my favorite — check out some new bands, and have a good time. I will be enjoying your updates from Crested Butte CO because like every other resident who has any sense and the ability to do so, I left for the week.

    1. Crusty Butt is my favorite CO ski resort. Great terrain. Enjoy.

      1. Thanks! We’ve been coming here since 1993 and love it.

      2. Crusty Butt? I don’t swing that way.

  3. “South by Southwest attendees may not be able to recite the Fourth Amendment on command (unlike yours truly), but two early panels on technology, privacy, and surveillance indicate that protecting this right is important to quite a few of them.”

    I’ll await news of revealed preference.
    SXSW seems quite wedded to the gov’t even if someone there occasionally whines about it.

    1. Tech companies don’t mind forced surveillance — as long as they are the ones doing it to the public. For “research purposes”, of course.

      They are of quite a different mind when their favorite castrated adult male bovine is being impaled….

      1. “Tech companies don’t mind forced surveillance”

        What is “forced surveillance”?

        1. A better term would be “involuntary surveillance”. Like when a phone maker includes monitoring software in their device and doesn’t tell you about it, or when they make you sign a service contract which has a hidden clause allowing you to use your personal information.

        2. bearded spock nailed it. As long as a company benefits either via tax dollars or access to the data to mine it for marketing they are tots okay with it…fuckers

  4. Well, at least the prog-trolls haven’t invaded this thread.

    1. So which are worse, prog-trolls or con-trolls?

      1. It’s the prog trolls by far who have infested this place for the worst.

        It’s not even a contest and the question shouldn’t be asked.

        1. That’s funny, cause I had it the other way.

          1. Chipper Morning Wood|3.10.17 @ 10:32PM|#
            “That’s funny, cause I had it the other way.”

            I’d take the progs by at least 3-2, but who do you see as the cons?

            1. Servo hardest hit.

  5. I have not understood the fascination with SXSW. Seems like a Burning Man but people keep their clothes on.

    1. I live in Austin and I’ve never been to SXSW, even back in the early 90’s when it was just a way for 6th street bars to make money during spring break.

      Friends that have gone to it, though, say that for people really into live music it’s a great deal. It was also one of the very first large conferences for on-line businesses and new platforms. Twitter started there; although giving birth to Twitter is a sin that merits eternal damnation. It’s much more of an industry conference for music and tech than a hippie festival. Less Burning Man, more Comic Con with suits and a soundtrack.

      1. Ok thanks for the description.

        1. Chemjeff, it’s a week of bad music and bad movies. I keed, I keed, some of it is good.

    2. My old friend and roommate quit the band he co-founded after playing at SXSW.

  6. Corporate surveillance is just as bad as government. Yes, the government can put you in jail or shoot you, but corporations can tell them to and they will (see copyright laws for instance).

    1. “Corporate surveillance is just as bad as government. Yes, the government can put you in jail or shoot you, but corporations can tell them to and they will (see copyright laws for instance).”


      1. It’s true in the sense that many businesses do not actually want a free market at all, and are all too happy to collude with the government to violate people’s rights. They are morally culpable for their own actions.

  7. Where’s turd to tell us that every up-tick in employment over the last 8 years was ’cause Obo!?

    “A robust February jobs report points to resilient US economy”
    ” U.S. employers added a robust 235,000 jobs in February and raised pay at a brisk pace ? signs that a resilient economy has given many companies the confidence to hire in anticipation of solid growth ahead.
    With the unemployment rate dipping to a low 4.7 percent from 4.8 percent, the job market appears to be fundamentally healthy or nearly so.
    Friday’s employment report from the government showed that more people began looking for jobs last month, an encouraging sign that they’ve grown confident about their prospects. Hiring was strong enough to absorb those new job seekers as well as some of the previously unemployed.”…..992060.php

    If the D’s don’t watch out, the D voters will be too busy making money to vote for them.

  8. “Trump confidante spoke to alleged Russian hacker”…..994292.php

    My wife’s hair dresser knows a guy whose cousin knows Elvis’ alien love child who swears the UFOs landed on the WH last night.
    FFS, give it a rest!

    1. It’s funny that they want to obsess over shit that no one but the choir gives a shit about while their are so many legitimate criticisms they could offer. They’re still so butthurt over Hillary losing that they can’t get past it. They probably never will which ironically helps Trump more than it hurts him.

  9. “If more or most Americans used tougher encryption to access devices, they’d be denied enough to stop trying”

    Good encryption is very hard. I would not be surprised if the feds have already cracked current encryption protocols. Even if not, they’re not going to stop trying. It’s only a matter of time. Of course that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make it as difficult for those dickheads as we can. Good governance would be to help us keep our data secure and private. We of course have the opposite of that.

    1. They haven’t. Very little modern encryption can be straight out hacked, at least not practically. They go around the edges, or attack the endpoints.

    2. Good encryption is the issue. Internet data can never be encrypted because it requires everyone on the same standard and when you implement a standard like WPA/WPA2 its 100% garbage.

      I use veracrypt for my data and thats not easy to break but no one else uses it so it’s not like i can send containers to people through a VPN because everyone is an idiot and doesn’t bother to install hamachi or veracrypt.

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