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Publick Occurrences Forum Addresses Security Vs. Privacy

Ebony Reed, Associated Press assistant chief of bureau/New England; Timothy Edgar, visiting fellow, Brown University's Watson Institute; and Peter Gaynor, director of the Providence Emergency Management Agency and Office of Homeland Security.

Ebony Reed, Associated Press assistant chief of bureau/New England; Timothy Edgar, visiting fellow, Brown University's Watson Institute; and Peter Gaynor, director of the Providence Emergency Management Agency and Office of Homeland Security.

 

Are Americans giving up too much privacy to protect their security?

That was the topic of the first of this year’s Publick Occurrences, a series of public service forums sponsored by The Providence Journal in partnership with Rhode Island College and Leadership Rhode Island.

The forum, which was held at RIC, drew more than 200 audience members who came to see eight panelists from various professions give their views, and field audience questions on issues of privacy and security in the digital age.

“I live at the local level of all of this,” said Peter Gaynor, director of the Providence Emergency Management Agency and Office of Homeland Security. “We want to make sure we have a balance, because we want to be trusted in everything we do.”

Gaynor was speaking specifically about street-level, public safety cameras, which he said is a “single tool” that makes his agency’s job easier, but the evening’s conversation covered everything from federal government spying to tools and tips to stop internet programs from tracking online shopping.

Some conversation was inspired by the Edward Snowden scandal involving his exposure of spying by the National Security Agency.

Timothy Edgar, visiting fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute, said his “basic point” is that the government should be more transparent about how it collects and handles information from U.S. citizens.

“Alarm bells should be going off in the minds of everyone,” said Edgar, who was the first director of privacy and civil liberties for the White House national security staff under President Barack Obama.

Heather Egan Sussman, a partner with law firm McDermott, Will & Emory, LLP., which is headquartered in Chicago, Ill., participated in a panel that addressed how retailers track customer information and said that practice largely depends on the retailer.

Sussman told the audience there are many tactics they can use, including using the search engine DuckDuckDuckgo.com, which, she said, does not track users or collect data.

“There are (ways) to take back some control,” Sussman said. “Consumers need to educate themselves.”

Audience members were invited to take part in a series of anonymous polling questions, including whether they considered Snowden to be a hero or traitor (the audience at first voted traitor but changed to hero at the end of the evening), whether the government should be able to monitor conversations journalists have with their sources (the audience voted no), and if they would be willing to give up reward cards benefits to prevent retailers from sharing shopping habits (yes).

Karen Bordeleau, senior vice president and executive editor of The Providence Journal, moderated the forum.

The Publick Occurrences series next will explore “How does Obamacare affect you?” on Oct. 3 and “Young Men and Guns: How do we stop the violence?” on Nov. 7. Both events take place from 6 to 8 p.m. in Sapinsley Hall in RIC’s Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts.