Internet Privacy Focus of 2023 Shasha Seminar

Steve ScarpaMarch 1, 20237min
Sebastian Zimmeck
Sebastian Zimmeck

Assistant Professor of Computer Science Sebastian Zimmeck sees internet privacy as nothing less than a human right—everyone should have control over their data and how it is distributed in the world.

“The concerns are twofold. Private companies have a lot of our data that we don’t know about, and the second point is that the government can request data from these companies that can be used in legal proceedings … the average internet user has no idea of the sheer amount of data collected from us,” Zimmeck said.

A quick glance at the headlines in the New York Times over the past month shows the breadth of the problem. Sharing email addresses allows one to be tracked across the entire internet. Control over smart home technology can be lost. Health data can be leaked. Some of the most private information a person has can be commodified or stolen.

“What you like and what you don’t like, activities you do, and what you think and how you reveal that … these are very personal and fundamental decisions,” Zimmeck said.

The next Shasha Seminar for Human Concerns will address this pervasive issue. This year’s seminar, called “A Roadmap for Internet Privacy,” will take place March 31 to April 1. Click here for more information or to register for the event.

The Shasha Seminar for Human Concerns is an educational forum for Wesleyan alumni, parents, and friends that provides an opportunity to explore issues of global concern in a small seminar environment.

A panel of experts from academia and major tech companies will convene to discuss one of the major issues of our time. The list of speakers, which includes representatives from Wesleyan, Google, Harvard, the World Wide Web Consortium, New York University, Northeastern, and Boston University, can be found here.

“We will have great talks and tutorials and other interaction that will prompt discussion, where people can ask questions and offer their own ideas,” Zimmeck said.

While there are certain protected categories of information, like financial or health data, Zimmeck said the absence of generally applicable privacy laws in the United States make it possible to misuse private internet data.

For example, data harvested from data brokers could theoretically be used to deny credit or a mortgage, or to prevent people from living in a particular area. Law enforcement could subpoena search information to determine if someone searched how to get an abortion in a state where it is prohibited.

“These are just some of the problems that can occur through these new forms of data collection,” Zimmeck said. “Online interactions can have substantial personal consequences.”

With the stakes this high, Zimmeck feels it’s incumbent all stakeholders to work towards a solution. Unlike some of his colleagues in the field, Zimmeck believes that there is hope for a remedy that offers more protection for people’s data. He said that some of the major internet companies are already thinking about this topic in a serious and thoughtful way.

“We have problems, but they can be addressed to improve internet privacy. Some feel the system is much more broken, so we’d need fundamental revisions. Others want to keep things the way they are. There are others who think that the problem is really capitalism or how our society is organized. There is a broad spectrum of opinion,” Zimmeck said.

Zimmeck doesn’t believe that people should completely unplug. Social media can be a positive way to foster connection and understanding. But, given what we know about the perils of the medium, Zimmeck advocates doing research on a company before signing up for their platform—what does their privacy policy look like? How has the company behaved in the past? “Are these people I can ultimately trust with my information?” Zimmeck said.

At the end of the seminar, Zimmeck hopes to be able to collect the perspectives of the participants and come up with a plan on how to improve internet privacy. He believes that combining regulatory legislation with the development of new business models could be the key to making privacy protections more appealing.

“Ideally, we can come up with a roadmap for the next five to 10 years that will make internet privacy better,” Zimmeck said.

Endowed by James Shasha ’50, P’82, the Shasha Seminar for Human Concerns supports lifelong learning and encourages participants to expand their knowledge and perspectives on significant issues.