Computer Science 105: Privacy and Technology is a popular course among computer science concentrators and non-concentrators alike. The class, taught by Computer Science Professor James “Jim” H. Waldo, examines the ethical and political implications of technology through a series of case studies. FM sat down with Waldo to discuss privacy and technology in society today.
Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
FM: Is academic information really private?
JW: In class, we talked about all of the data we can get from HarvardX or Canvas. How can we use that? What are the students’ rights with respect to that? [Could we] actually find out everything about the student given all that information?
Some people say we can use that data to identify students at risk for mental health issues or low-performance in a course… But should we be using it for that or not? Harvard has strong regulations for how data should be used and what data we don’t share... But suppose we decided to just use whatever we could. What limits Google or Facebook in the research they can do around you? Harvard has much more stringent limits.
FM: What about privacy and tech in the news has surprised you lately?
JW: Last year, with the election going on, we spent a lot of time talking about big data. If big data tells you everything, how did the election turn out so different than expected? After the election, I walked into class and wrote “WTF?” on the board, and that was our discussion.
FM: How can we protect our online privacy?
JW: Two-factor authentication is a very good idea, even though HarvardKey might be a pain. You should encrypt your disk. Be careful about what you post on social media—just assume that it is going to be public. If you are going to be using your credit card for online purchases, make sure you are using https. Don’t have private chats when you are sitting in Starbucks.
FM: What’s the future of virtual reality? Of artificial intelligence?
JW: Virtual reality has been around for a long time. The first VR headset was done at Harvard. Of course… we’re not going to be living in virtual worlds very soon. The possibilities are amazing but it's going to take a while.
Where will it end? I have no idea. Things travel really, really quickly. People are worried about AI machines being smarter than we are, [but] I think that’s overblown. It’s just as likely that machines will turn out to be benevolent, or that they won’t care about us.