The Q&A: Why the director of the Munk School of Global Affairs Janice Gross Stein won’t be our friend on Facebook

The Q&A: Why the director of the Munk School of Global Affairs Janice Gross Stein won’t be our friend on Facebook

Janice Gross SteinOne of the essays in your new book argues that privacy has become an endangered species. Can you explain?
Threats to our privacy have proliferated. The Citizen Lab here at the Munk School discovered a group operating through servers in China that was able to remotely access people’s webcams. Think about that. As we’re sitting here, someone is hacking into your computer. When you go back to transcribe this interview, they will have a picture of you and a record of everything you have done.

That’s mildly terrifying. But it doesn’t appear that the general public is too concerned. We post every conceivable detail of our lives on Facebook and Twitter.
Well, that’s the really interesting contradiction. Threats to our privacy abound, and yet people voluntarily share intimate details through social media and email.

Like the Mississauga MP Bob Dechert, whose flirty email correspondence with the journalist from Xinhua became public reading. What was he thinking?
You’re alone in a room and you lose perspective. You forget that what you’re writing is public. Let me ask you: would you be happy if all your emails were made public?

But they are public! And they’re permanent and traceable, and with appropriate procedures, authorities can access them. The only issue is: are you a person of interest?

I think not. But you probably are.
Yes—but I don’t use Facebook or Twitter, and I treat my email and cellphone conversations as public.

What if you want to discuss something really juicy?
I meet for a face-to-face conversation.

That sounds paranoid.
Well, no. In, say, the 1970s, if you wrote a letter, and if you were a person of int­erest, a government agency with adequate legal grounds could intercept your mail. That has not changed. The difference today is that we say much more because technology is so quick. And it’s not only governments that can read what we’re sending: it’s also criminal networks and politically motivated networks. So it’s not a more paranoid environment, it’s a more penetrable environment.

WikiLeaks made sensitive diplomatic cables public. How has that event changed our world, one year later?
In a funny way, WikiLeaks has made communications more secure. Diplomats now understand that the cables they write back home are functionally public documents, and they write them that way. If they need to send sensitive information, they will classify it as top secret so that it’s encrypted. So in that way, communications have become less transparent—the opposite of what Julian Assange wanted.

In a way, the Internet has turned us all into stalkers. Do you check out the Facebook pages of PhD students you’re thinking of hiring?
No, because I think people are entitled to indiscretions. I don’t want to know if someone drank too much in first year. I am interested in the quality of their work and in their values and commitments.

So how do we restore the sanctity of privacy and secrecy? It would seem that there’s no turning this bus around.
In a world where everything is public, people start to treasure private space. They carve it out, and it becomes more important to them. They safeguard it.

Effectively creating a public identity and a private identity.

So we might see you on Facebook after all.
Ha! Well, not this year…