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Radcliffe Fellow Talks Technological Advancement, Privacy, and Ethics

Students make their way through Harvard Yard
Students make their way through Harvard Yard By Amy Y. Li
By Maria G. Gonzalez, Contributing Writer

Computer scientist Francine Berman discussed the need for data policy that promotes the public good and protects consumer security at the Radcliffe Institute’s Knafel Center Wednesday evening.

Berman, who is a Radcliffe fellow, gave her talk, entitled “Civilizing the Internet of Things,” as part of the Institute’s Fellow’s Presentation Series. A computer science professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, her research has focused on cyberinfrastructure — advanced technological systems — and the responsible use of data.

She began her discussion by describing the unprecedented amount of technology in use around the world.

“Today, there are many more connected devices than there are humans on earth,” she said. “If we think about it, we’re really talking about this connected world, what it is, and where we’re headed.”

Berman’s current work focuses on the social and environmental impact of this digitally connected world, which she calls the “Internet of Things.”

“[The IoT is[ a deeply interconnected set of sensors and cameras and smart systems and all kinds of devices and other technologies that are connected to one another, that share and exchange data, that work together to make decisions, and that often operate autonomously in the background, with or without you knowing it,” Berman said. "[It] has the promise of technology that will really enhance our environment."

Berman, however, noted that there are also many risks associated with the IoT, citing security problems with baby monitors, self-driving car crashes, and Amazon’s Alexa sharing private conversations.

“The question becomes, is the IoT a future utopia or a future dystopia?,” Berman said. “It’s up to us as we develop and nurture the IoT that we’ll be seeing in the future.”

In her talk, Berman pointed to policy, regulation, and civic involvement as potential solutions to the more dangerous aspects of the IoT.

“The government can help in lots of different ways,” she said. “We have to know what rights we can expect in the Internet of Things. We have to know what kind of data protections we have.

“We need an IoT equivalent of OSHA to keep us safe,” she added. “We need guidelines for ethical development. We need clarity on who’s responsible and who’s liable when things go wrong.”

Ethan Cowan, a master’s student at the Harvard Extension School, said he found the connection between technology and policy important.

“The technology has far outpaced the public policy and political knowledge and I don’t think that we have — not just in the U.S., but as a species — come to terms with the radical effects of the amount of data that we’re generating and what it can tell us about ourselves and about individuals,” Cowan said.

Connecticut high school student Lauren C. Uhl also said that information about the IoT is missing from political discourse.

“We don’t really hear politicians talk about this — aside from Andrew Yang — you don’t get a lot of context into politicians and their views,” she said.

Yang, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, has proposed the idea of giving individuals property rights to their data.

Berman said that voters should take a close look at candidates’ platforms and views on technology in order to remedy this problem and facilitate discussion about an ethical IoT that promotes the public good.

“The head of the country has an enormous responsibility to set the tone for where the U.S. is going to be in terms of information technology,” Berman said. “It’s important to know that about your candidate, and to ask your candidate that question.”

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Radcliffe InstituteEventsComputer Science