First-Year Studies: Privacy vs. Security in a Networked World


The Internet was developed at the height of the Cold War as a way to maintain a robust communication system in the event of a nuclear attack. It is ironic, then, that the same technology may put us at risk of 21st-century security threats such as electronic surveillance, aggregation and mining of personal information, and cyberterrorism. In this seminar, we contrast doomsday myths popularized by movies such as War Games with more mundane scenarios such as total disruption of electronic commerce. Along the way, we address questions such as: Does modern technology allow people to communicate secretly and anonymously? Can a few individuals disable the entire Internet? Can hackers launch missiles or uncover blueprints for nuclear power plants from remote computers on the other side of the world? We will also investigate other computer security issues, including spam, computer viruses, and identity theft. Meanwhile, with our reliance on cell phones, text messages, and electronic mail, have we unwittingly signed ourselves up to live in an Orwellian society? Or can other technologies keep “1984” at bay? Our goal is to investigate if and how society can strike a balance so as to achieve computer security without substantially curtailing rights to free speech and privacy. Along the way, we will introduce the science of networks and describe the underlying theories that make the Internet at once tremendously successful and so challenging to regulate. Part of the course will be devoted to learning cryptology—the science (and art) of encoding and decoding information to enable private communication. We will conclude with a discussion of how cutting-edge technologies, such as quantum cryptography and quantum computing, may impact the privacy of electronic communications in the near future. We will hold several informal debates on current topics, such as whether Edward Snowden should be viewed as a hero or a traitor, the ethics of Wikileaks and Anonymous, and whether law-enforcement officials should be required to obtain warrants before examining smartphones.