Citizen Lab Summer Institute 2017 Trip Report

Posted on behalf of Mark Martinez

What conference did I go to?

I went to the Citizen Lab Summer Institute 2017 (CLSI) conference held by the eponymous Citizen Lab that brings together not only computer scientists, but any actor that works in the privacy and security field. I went to conduct interviews for a research project headed by Marshini Chetty and Philipp Winter. The link to the research project and its description can be found here: Tor Interview Project

It was this intersection of political scientists, computer scientists and political activists that made this conference so unique. To see so much of the impact that privacy technology makes made me realize how important the work in ensuring anonymity in certain circumstances is. One of the first people to speak at the conference talked about how some of her colleagues were jailed in a foreign nation because of the human rights work that they were doing. It hit home as to why it’s so important to actually make sure that when a person wishes to remain anonymous they can because it can be an actual matter of life and death.

Where was the conference held?

The conference is held yearly at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. It is held in the Citizen Lab which frequently publishes papers on privacy and security both in the industrial and government sector.

What were the three best talks I attended?

My favorite talk of the conference was the first talk that had each major party of the conference rise up and talk about what they are doing and who they are collaborating with. It was here that you got to see just how diverse the group of participants were. It seemed like there were actually no purely technical people: everybody worked on interesting and inter-disciplinary work. The work varied from human rights and combating censorship in nations to deconstructing applications that are widely used in some foreign countries and exposing major security flaws. The first day’s agenda and notes (as well as links to all talks) can be found at this link: Agenda and Notes

Another interesting talk was listening to how censorship affects multiple countries in different ways. Four people talked about how censorship affects diverse regions of the world like, Pakistan, Iran, Brazil and Latin America, and parts of Africa. These people talked about the work that they do to circumvent censorship like creating different ways for people to reach blocked websites such as by redirecting the traffic or even setting up satellite dishes that would allow people to obtain blocked information. One interesting note was that in the 2017 Iranian election there was no censorship of popular media because it was now the entire political spectrum that were using platforms like WhatsApp and not just younger liberal pockets of the populace. This talk’s information can be found here: WorldWide Censorship Notes

A very different talk that I attended was done in collaboration with Jason Li and Andrew Hilts. In this talk Jason took technical concepts from the crowd and within 10 minutes made them into comics. Jason took examples like phishing and Tor and made them into approachable and mildly humorous comics. Jason and Andrew went on to explain that one feature that the Citizen Lab performs is to take issues that are widely relevant to the public but that are easily lost in jargon and make them into comics. This talk’s information can be found here: Technical Problems into Comics

What was my favorite part of the conference?

The conference was an eye-opening experience. Although much of my time was spent doing interviews for the research study I was participating in, I was still able to see how much concrete impact is being made in the lives of people all over the world. Privacy and security is not just a matter of novelty or paranoia, but is something that is critical to the success of so many operations worldwide ranging from understanding what user agreements for apps are to protecting the lives of human rights activists that are under government scrutiny.


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