Keep Dream of a Free and Open Internet Alive, Black Hat Keynoter Urges

Black Hat keynoter Jennifer Granick, director of Civil Liberties at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, discusses the need for legal and policy change to defend Internet freedom.

Jennifer Granick

LAS VEGAS—Will the dream of Internet freedom be dead in 20 years? That's the question that Jennifer Granick, director of Civil Liberties at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, discussed in an hourlong keynote at the Black Hat USA security conference here today.

"I believe in the dream of a free and open Internet, and I believe in the freedom to tinker," Granick said.

Granick has spent much of the last decade defending security researchers, including Black Hat founder Jeff Moss, from the perils of the U.S. judicial system, and she's seen some trends emerge over that time that worry her. In her view, the Internet has become, either through neglect or evolutionary trends, more centralized and regulated than ever before.

Looking out 20 years into the future, Granick worries that Internet users won't be aware of technology decisions made by others that impact their rights and privacy.

"Software will decide whether a car runs over you or off a bridge," she said. "Things will happen and no one will really know why."

Granick sees the Internet becoming more like TV, so instead of a global conversation, it will become a one-way tool, and rather than being about enabling revolution, it will be used to reinforce existing power structures.

"Instead of routing around censorship, the Internet is facilitating surveillance, censorship and control," she said.

All is not lost though, and changes can be made now by asking the right questions. Among the questions posed by Granick: Should we be worrying more about a terrorist attack in New York or the ability of journalists to tell stories? How much free speech does a society really need? Can we use technology to adjust the balance of power between people and governments so we can get privacy back?

Granick emphasized that it's important to be able to "tinker"—that is, to be able to hack, manipulate and understand the technology we use. That said, she has seen laws like the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) limit the ability of security researchers and others to understand technology.

"Understanding technology is necessary in a democratic society," Granick said. "In the next 20 years, we'll have more devices and software will be in everything, and if we can't study it, we'll be surrounded by black boxes that do things that we can't understand."

Granick stressed that privacy is essential to liberty, and the reality is now is the golden age of surveillance. In her view, laws have fallen short of protecting privacy, instead enabling surveillance.

"Security is often about power. Those in power want it and want to deny it [security] to others," she said.

In the final analysis, to keep the dream of a free and open Internet alive, Granick said that we need to worry about the right issues and not be driven by unsubstantiated fears. The dream of Internet privacy can be enabled with end-to-end encryption that is the hands of users and laws that protect the rights of users.

"Humans are way more afraid of sharks than cows, but cows kill eight times more people than sharks—it's true, look it up," Granick said.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.