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Bridges forum tackles privacy and technology

By Dave Brendsel

October 1, 2005

Technology can enslave or liberate, depending on how it's used, panelists pointed out at a University of Denver Bridges to the Future forum on Sept. 14 at the Newman Center.

"Technology doesn't control us," said panelist Stephen Haag, associate dean of graduate programs at DU's Daniels College of Business. "We control technology."

Bridges, an ongoing series of issue forums, kicked off its fourth year with the panel discussion "Geo-Slavery or Cyber-Liberation: Freedom and Privacy in the Information Age." Nearly 500 attended.

Haag was joined on the panel by Jerome Dobson, president of the American Geographical Society; Stephen Keating, business editor for the Denver Post; and Phillip Zimmerman, chair of OpenPGP, a national privacy advocacy group. Political Science Department Chair Susan Sterett moderated.

Panelists described how an emerging right of privacy often conflicts with sophisticated electronic communication and surveillance capabilities. For instance, geographic information systems (GIS) applications that were developed for tracking prisoners may also be used to track Alzheimer's patients, liberating their caregivers from the worry that they'll wander off. But applying that same technology, as some companies now do, to track employee movements via their cell phones may be interpreted as a kind of corporate slavery.

Dobson, a GIS expert, warned that technological capabilities are evolving faster than the policies to control them. Human tracking has become more widespread during the past few years, he said, yet there has been little debate or opposition? notably from labor unions?on how to protect worker privacy.

"Human tracking is already a grand social experiment," Dobson said.

Zimmerman said he advocates controlling technology with a recognized right of privacy. While no single constitutional amendment spells out such a right, Zimmerman asserted that they all suggest one. The growing movement to promote privacy rights, he said, was set back by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the ensuing passage of the Patriot Act. Without tougher privacy laws, he said, government can continue to intrude on people's privacy in the name of national security.

"We can't let them do this," Zimmerman said. "We have to sit up on our hind legs and push back."

Haag wondered whether it was too late to control the march of technology and was skeptical of the ability of government policies to catch up. The best solution to balancing the convenience of technology with people's desire for privacy, he said, may be to spend more time teaching young people core values, including a respect for privacy.

DU's next Bridges to the Future event continues on the theme of technology versus values. On Oct. 27, Amitai Etzioni, director of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at George Washington University, will present "Rights and Responsibilities in the Age of Terrorism."

This article originally appeared in The Source, October 2005.