A landscape of snow under a beautiful sun

Written by Gertjan Boulet on 6 February 2013

During the annual international conference Computers, Privacy and Data Protection (CPDP2013) a beautiful sun shined upon our capital city which was covered in snow.  A nice metaphor for both the cold and warm feelings that our information society evokes; or for the efforts of the organization committee of CPDP2013, including myself from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, to shed a better light on a surveillance landscape that has been crystallized into snow. David Lyon would say liquid surveillance ….

CPDP2013 took place from 23 to 25 January in les Halles de Schaerbeek in Brussels on the occasion of the Data Privacy Day held on January 28th every year. Brussels owes its reputation as “data protection centre of the world" to CPDP which every year gathers academics, lawyers, practitioners, policy-makers, computer scientists, consultants and civil society from all over the world and with various backgrounds to exchange ideas and discuss the latest emerging issues in information technology, privacy, data protection, law and social sciences.

2012 was yet another year of security breaches, data leakages, amended privacy policies, distributed denial-of-service attacks on governmental websites, increasing popular movements to support fundamental rights and a free and open Internet. Much attention was also given to a recent report of the European Parliament on “Fighting cyber crime and Protecting Privacy in the cloud”, and one panel was dedicated to this theme. Being co-author of this report I am very pleased to see that the (inter)national press has aired our warning for secret surveillance from the United States. In fact, the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendment Act (FISAA) allows access to the data of European citizens who store data in American  clouds, and this without any judicial order! The debate for a European cloud has thus been launched.

CPDP2013 took place one year after the proposals of the European Commission to reform the EU legal framework on privacy and data protection. This year, the conference will provide a forum to review the key debates surrounding the proposed data protection regulation, as well as to provide different perspectives on the draft report currently discussed in the European Parliament. CPDP2013 also provided a forum to sign the Brussels Privacy Declaration, and hosted the European Parliament’s Privacy Platform "Building the Digital Fortress: A Toolkit for Cyber Security”.

Interdisciplinarity was once more central this year, which was reflected in the variety of panels and backgrounds of the speakers. Two panels were dedicated to medical confidentiality, there was a philosophers’ reading panel on ‘internet freedom, copyright and privacy’. In addition, there were various workshops and special sessions for promising young researchers.

CPDP has been growing progressively since its inception in terms of speakers, participants and panels, attracting more than 650 participants to its many panels held over three consecutive days. Organized by Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) in cooperation with leading European academic centers, CPDP paid particular attention to high-level and innovative research, enjoying the valuable contributions of about 250 speakers from all over the world. CPDP enjoyed numerous valuable contributions, among which from Francoise Le Bail, European Commission, Director General DG Justice; Toomas Kendrik Ilves, President of Estonia; Jan Philipp Albrecht, Member of the European Parliament – the Greens; Marielle Gallo, Member of the European Parliament, EPP; Sophie In’t Veld, Member of the European Parliament – ALDE; Jean-Christophe Le Toquin, Microsoft; Julie Brill, Commissioner of US Federal Trade Commission; and Alessandro Acquisti, Associate Professor at Carnegie Melon University. 

But let us not forget the man with the bell, who five minutes before the end of each panel relentlessly urged panelists to finish. This deus ex machina has indeed contributed to the professionalism of the terrific conference program.

To engage with the wider public, together with its partners, CPDP organized a whole range of side events, including a PechaKucha evening and an art exhibition on surveillance art supported by Vlaams-Nederlands Huis deBuren during 23 January – 3 February 2013.

The exhibition “A Look Inside” features surveillance art, or how people and new and old technologies can look at us and our data. It aimed to create awareness and address side effects of this evolution, and therefore, the curators exhibited more than a dozen of different art forms as sculptures, installations, paintings, film & sound. The curators also organized a public workshop on privacy and technology.

At the end of the first conference day, Professor David Lyon, Director of the Surveillance Studies Centre (Queens University, Canada) presented his new book Liquid Surveillance: A Conversation, which he co-authored with Zygmunt Bauman, Professor Emeritus of Sociology (University of Leeds, United Kingdom). New surveillance technologies can have a significant impact on privacy. Surveillance, defined as “any collection and processing of personal data, whether identifiable or not, for the purposes of influencing or managing those whose data have been garnered” (Lyon, 2001:2), is a distinctive product of the modern world and as this world has become liquefied so too has surveillance. Why do people so willingly comply with surveillance and how does this liquidity suck everyone into its stream as participants? These and other questions were addressed during the book presentation. The presentation was followed by a lively roundtable discussion moderated by William Webster, University of Stirling (UK).

At the end of the second day, the debate “No free lunch on social media” focused on both the privacy expectations of users of social media, and on the current trade-off made on all social media: users are offered free access to social media, but in the end the advertisers pay through advertising for their free lunch. Social media platforms seem to challenge users’ privacy.

The third day was closed with a privacy party, which together with the sunny 3 days has given us hope for a brighter future for our privacy.

Gertjan Boulet, on behalf of the CPDP programming committee
Research Group on Law, Science, Technology & Society (LSTS)
Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) - Faculty of Law and Criminology



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