WASHINGTON—At first the meeting at the Future of Privacy Forum headquarters downtown looked like any other office soiree here, one populated by Millennials and hipsters trying to impress each other with their real or perceived level of official access.
But a second look changed that impression. Right behind the check-in desk was a massive flat screen television showing an image of each person as they arrived.
Superimposed on each person’s image was a computer’s guess as to our demographics. Were we young or old? Male or female? I was identified as a woman under 30. A friend who works for USA Today was also identified as a woman, but to his annoyance, the computer decided he was over 40.
Of course the gender-mangling computer was really there for another purpose, which was to show how far machines had come in determining the sort of person that was in its view finder. The idea is that marketers could get an idea about the makeup of people at an event to see if they were attracting the audience they hoped to attract.
Across the room from the ubiquitous beer-and-wine bar was a table with several aerial drones. Next to that a man was wearing an Oculus VR headset. There was also an Amazon Echo in the room, which I commanded to play some Mozart. There were radio frequency beacons and perhaps the creepiest interactive device ever seen—a Hello Barbie toy.
Clustered around each display were groups of people from technology companies and government agencies. There was someone from the Federal Communications Commission, which is currently wrestling with privacy rules, as well as a representative of the Department of Homeland Security. Talking in a corner were former Federal Trade Commission member Julie Brill and the European Union’s Data Protection Supervisor Giovanni Buttarelli. Clearly this was more than just a bunch of hipsters.
Jules Polonetsky, executive director and co-chair of the Future of Privacy Forum explained that his organization had invited these people who are responsible for managing or regulating technology with a privacy impact to get some time with the technology for which they’re making rules. “It’s surprising how few have had a chance to interact with these tech items,” he said.
The FPF is a think tank that “seeks to advance responsible data practices,” according to its mission statement. The organization does this through educational outreach, academic research and through actual evaluations of tech products that have an impact on personal privacy.
Polonetsky said that the group does this by obtaining versions of the products they’re evaluating and then trying them out to learn not just how they work, but to discover information they gather and what they do with that information once it’s collected.