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Hofstra alumnus addresses data security concerns

Hofstra alumnus addresses data security concerns

Photo Courtesy of the University of Mississippi

As part of the Fred DeMatteis School of Engineering’s Executive Speakers series, James Nolan, executive vice president of InterDigital and Hofstra MBA graduate, spoke to students and faculty on Friday, April 13. The central focus of Nolan’s lecture was the state of data security today following the recent Cambridge Analytica case.

In an interactive talk that worked both as a question and answer session and lecture on InterDigital’s history, Nolan spoke on the “Internet of Things,” the process of data collection, ad agency microtargeting and the weight of personal privacy in an age of heightened data permeability. “Every time you receive a product or service for free, remember, you are the product,” Nolan said. He further noted that the widespread practices of “targeted content, targeted advertising and targeted experienced based on unique individual context have potential for very positive benefits, but also create enormous privacy issues and potential for abuse.”

Cambridge Analytica, a political data firm that micro targets voters, was revealed by The New York Times to have collected private information from more than 87 million Facebook users, unbeknownst to the social media site.

In the subsequent public paranoia, alternative models to ad marketing have gained increased favor. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, suggested opting for a subscription model in which users would experience ad-free services by paying a monthly subscription fee. Equalized with the current ad targeting model, Nolan points out that these fees would average to around $4 per month for Google’s hosts of services and half that amount for Facebook’s.

Nolan commented on the inevitability of data collection and microtargeting in the current ubiquity of advertising models. “I think most people were passive until the last election and until the stuff that came out with Cambridge Analytica,” Nolan said. “People have gone from being totally passive and clicking through everything to now being up in arms about ‘Why did this happen,’ ‘How did this happen?’”

Faculty and students were interactive during Nolan’s speech, contributing with their own insights and posing questions.Philip Coniglio, Hofstra’s Director of the DeMatteis School Co-op Program, asked about possible preventative measures for passive data collecting. “Google knows who you’re getting emails from and who you respond to,” Nolan said, “You can turn off a lot of these things. The trade-off you’re making is that you’re getting a lot of services for free by letting them take this data. You’d have to be vigilant in terms of every time you download a new app, every time your app reloaded itself on an update, you’d have to be sure to reset all of the settings.”

Dr. Edward Currie, professor of engineering, voiced concerns about the ethicality of data collection, “They should provide people with the option to opt-out,” he said, “It shouldn’t be inevitable.”

Siobhan Stergis, a senior computer science major, noted that social media companies cater to an unmistakable human fault: the need to be constantly entertained. “I feel that the sentiment of inevitability is painful and shouldn’t be something we should succumb to as a group,” Stergis said. “In essence, one way of answering that question is that humans, in a sense, constantly need to be entertained ... We want to be moving on to the next thing; we want to see what’s out there. There’s a part of us that needs to be constantly fed and entertained and kept happy.”

This inevitability has, as Nolan pointed out, succeeded until recently in passively consuming the majority of internet users. The questions broached by these considerations of current conditions are critical in future public discussion on data security.

“Will consumers accept the risks to their privacy and security?” Nolan asked. “Will targeted content, media and advertising simplify our lives, or is it a massive intrusion into our lives? Are we willing to pay for benefits, or suffer the consequences of free?”


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