Hot Topic 2015


Scientists and Society face the ethical challenges of computational science together.

The 3rd Heidelberg Laureate Forum (HLF) hosts a multi-faceted discussion riveted on Big Data and resolving challenges produced by computational science. The Hot Topic at the this year’s Forum, ‘Brave New Data World’, is broken down into presentations from leading authorities, moderated workshops and an open debate among the participants. The Heidelberg Laureate Forum Foundation (HLFF) strives to create the opportunity for progressive discourse to flourish, which is most effectively championed by the conglomeration of diverse mindsets.

The Hot Topic at the 3rd HLF dives into enigmatic questions that are woven throughout computational science. How secure is our data? How is intellectual property evolving? Should we blindly accept massive data mining? How is computational science most effectively used for good? How should we regulate this ‘brave new data world’? Set to address these issues are: Alessandro Acquisti of Carnegie Mellon University, Kristin Tolle of Microsoft Research and Jeremy Gillula of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Four workshops for the participants are moderated by: Ciro Cattuto of the ISI Foundation, Megan Price of Human Rights Data Analysis Group and Peter Y. A. Ryan of the University of Luxembourg.

Divergent backgrounds are fundamental to achieving a well-balanced and progressive dissection of any issue. This is precisely why the panel selections emanating from varied professions, from elite academia to powerhouse companies to progressive research centers. There are three substantial key-note speakers scheduled to prelude the four workshops tackling consequential current issues. Following the workshops, which are led by experts who are assisted by selected young researchers, the session culminates with an unbarred debate.

The Hot Topic Session will be coordinated by Michele Catanzaro, author of “Networks: A Very Short Introduction” and a highly accomplished freelance science journalist. Michele sees the 3rd HLF as an ideal environment and “fertile ground for making scientists provocative and constructive allies to the public”.

Speakers and subjects:

Alessandro Acquisti (Carnegie Mellon University)
“Privacy in the Age of Augmented Reality”

I will present a series of results from studies and experiments investigating the economics of privacy, the behavioral economics of privacy, and privacy in online social networks. The results illustrate surprising trade-offs that emerge from the protection and sharing of personal information, and the inadequacy of “notice and consent” mechanisms for privacy protection. Based on these studies, I will advocate a change in the way we frame, and think about, the privacy debate.

Jeremy Gillula (Electronic Frontier Foundation)
“Big Data and the Surveillance-Industrial Complex”

Big Data has tremendous potential for societal benefit, enabling everything from instant access to desired information via vast search engines, to new understanding of genetic diseases, to better weather forecasting. But one application of big data consistently fails to produce meaningful results while simultaneously introducing tremendous dangers to society as well: the application of big data to the individualized tracking and targeting of people, primarily for the purposes of serving advertisements. By tracking people’s web browsing, location history, and social interactions, private companies invade the privacy of each and every one of us every day, often without our knowledge or consent.

Worse yet, government agencies like the US National Security Agency take advantage of this sort of tracking to aid their bulk surveillance programs. By piggybacking on the unique identifiers advertisers and tracking services place in people’s browsers, these agencies are able to spy on Internet users without detection on a scale that would otherwise be impossible.

In my remarks I will explain in more detail why this application of big data fails to produce meaningful results (both for advertising companies and intelligence agencies), how it endangers privacy, and what computer scientists can do to get better results without sacrificing privacy.

Kristin Tolle (Microsoft Research)
“Using Big Data, Cloud Computing and Interoperability to Save Lives”

With the availability of open data comes the responsibility for using it in a way that is consistent with individual privacy and security concerns. Often times it is data interoperability that enables privacy breaches—that an innocuous dataset can be combined with others to triangulate information about groups and individuals. However, this same capability is extremely valuable when lives and livelihoods are threatened by natural disasters. As part of the National Flood Interoperability Experiment, I’ve had a first hand look at how data interoperability could potentially save lives. Bringing together data generated by multiple sources can aid first responders to be more proactive than reactive and potentially enable direct notification to individuals who are at greatest risk.

Ciro Cattuto (ISI Foundation)

“Case study – From the black box in your car to the black box society”

The technological platforms that enable and mediate our digital lives collect huge amounts of data on our behaviors, preferences, and individual histories. Black boxes that are increasingly being installed in our cars are an example of a vast array of sensors and devices that measure human behaviour at an unpredecented scale. Today these data can be used to build models and algorithms that are used to shape or influence decisions about us, a process that has been described as “scoring” of individuals, or of entire propulations. What are the challenges of a society in which a growing number of services include algorithmic black boxes? What are the opportunities and risks of this ongoing transition?

Megan Price (Human Rights Data Analysis Group)
“Case study – Big Data Promises and Pitfalls: Examples from Syria”

The Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG) relies on many data sources in the documentation of human rights, like bureaucratic or border crossing records. Quantitative analyses have the potential to contribute to transitional justice mechanisms, via empirical evidence. However, most data available in transitional justice settings are incomplete. Utilizing conventional ‘big’ data approaches can lead to not only incomplete but often incorrect analytical results. This presentation will explore how information is generated about killings in conflict, and how the process of generation shapes the statistical patterns in the observed data. The difference between the observed patterns and the true patterns is called bias. Multiple individual sources reporting identifiable killings in Syria will be compared to highlight variations in the likely probabilities of reporting for events of different sizes or types of violence. When appropriately analyzed, and with adjustments for incompleteness, data can contribute to a variety of transitional justice mechanisms.

Peter Y. A. Ryan (University of Luxembourg)
“Case study – Back doors, trap doors, and crypto wars”

How to reconcile the tension between the right to privacy on the one hand and the requirements of law enforcement and intelligence agencies to access private information in order to protect society? In this session I will explore this issue discussing attempts to weaken the security of the Internet by the introduction of back doors to encryption standards. In the 80’s the Clinton administration attempted to enforce the introduction of escrow mechanisms into cryptographic products, though mechanisms, like the “Clipper” chip. The resulting debate was dubbed “The Crypto Wars” and the proposals were withdrawn. But recently the NSA has attempted to insert a back door into the standard for the Dual EC pseudo-random number generator, used in cryptography. Attempts of law-enforcement to weaken the security of the Internet almost certainly result in vulnerabilities exploitable by others. Can we find mechanisms to ensure that surveillance is constrained strictly to what is legal, necessary and proportionate? Is communications surveillance the most effective use of resources in countering crime and terrorism?

Place and Time:
The Hot Topic afternoon on BRAVE NEW DATA WORLD will be held on August 25, 2015, starting at 2:30 p.m., in the Neue Aula at the Neue Universität, Universitätsplatz, 69117 Heidelberg.