Regarding Privacy, Security, and EFFective Encryption

A man sitting between several servers. A laptop is on his lap.
Leonardo Rizzi

It’s no secret that nowadays, your data can [likely] be accessed by anyone under the sun. If it IS new to you, well, then hold on to your butts.

In 2017 alone, tens of millions of records were stolen or leaked and we’re only in August so far. By far some of the biggest of those are from telecom and wireless providers like Verizon and Bell, arguably some of the companies who should benefit most from having secure practices and bulwarks against cyber-crime. The blame here though isn’t one solely of the corporations in control of that data, but also the producers of said data.

One estimate says that we produce an average of 2.5 quintillion (that’s 2.5 followed by 17 zeroes, or 2,500,000,000,000,000,000 for you visual folks) bytes of data annually. Converted to something perhaps more reasonable, that’d be 2.5 million terabytes per year – even more reasonable, that’d be roughly one billion (with a B) iPhones worth of data. Check out this infographic by Ben Walker for some interesting comparisons, notably that this amount of data would have to be stored on 10 million blu-ray discs, which would stack as high as four Eiffel Towers.

“I’ve Got Nothing to Hide”

Now that I’ve sufficiently bored you with math, on to discussion. Often the argument I hear when talking to people about why they should be encrypting their data or protecting their privacy is “Why should I? I’ve got nothing to hide.” Yes, that may be what you tell yourself, but it’s inherently false. Consider this: You’re at Starbucks, chatting to your partner about your workday. As you’re mulling over your coffee, you don’t shout for everyone around you to hear I assume. I also assume that if someone with a notebook were to stop next to the table you were sitting at conversing with them, you’d bristle up and demand to know their reason for standing there. That right there is the reasoning on why privacy is important, and people are implicitly granted and often vehemently expect it.

Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.

-Edward Snowden

Now let’s imagine the person next to your table opens the notebook, ready to write. You don’t know what they’re listening for, what they might be watching for, nothing. You see them scribble something here and there. Sounds uncomfortable, no? This in turn would likely lead to you and your partner leaving, or, if you were for some reason comfortable with this intrusion, beginning to watch what you say lest they jot it down. This is the chilling effect of non-consensual surveillance, and consensual surveillance to some degree. This is a rather benign and silly example, but it happens on a Big, digital, panoptic scale every day, and you can’t walk out of that arena so easily.

The irony: freedoms are not being taken away, we are just afraid to use them.

Privacy vs. Security vs. Secrecy

So now, you might be sold on the premise of privacy. So you commit to reading through privacy policies and terms of service, or something close to that anyway, turn off locations services and recent places on your phone, and limit your ability to be tracked (to the best of your ability). You, who didn’t click those links, please go back and do so.

So you’re good, right? Ehh, not so much. Don’t get me wrong, these are fantastic places to start.  But your best bet on keeping your information secure (think: under lock and key) is to make sure your passwords are strong (better yet, use a password manager) and you can ensure your crucial websites utilize HTTPS. Luckily for you, most websites default to this (check your browser for a little green lock in the address bar – if it’s there, you’re good! For the lazy among us, myself included, the EFF has a great tool for this.)

That little green lock basically ensures that even if a hacker happens to be watching what you send and receive to and from Mr. JP Morgan Chase, he only gets to see black envelopes versus your account number, passwords, or worse/more. HTTPS isn’t perfect, but it’s moving the internet forward in the right direction, and can only get better. There’s many more back-end tech and other tools to talk about, but that’s for another time. We’re aiming for simple for now.

Going back to the argument above, being “What’s the need for security if I’ve got nothing to hide?” Well you sir are flat out wrong. You have nothing to hide in your home or car, and yet you lock those to keep thieves from taking your electronics or cash. The USPS is not allowed to open packages or envelopes addressed to you under federal penalties. The same should apply in the digital world.

Alternatively, think of it this way: everyone knows what you do in the bathroom, that’s no secret. But it takes someone special to do it with the door open, much more so in public, all the time. H/t to Cory Doctorow for this analogy.

Again, while it might not be a secret what you’re doing, you wouldn’t want someone peering over your shoulder to see exactly what it is. When even those with the most direct line to your most secret of secrets go all in-on privacy and encryption, it stands to reason you probably should too.


So let’s recap. 2.5 quintillion bytes of data annually that needs protecting. Tens of millions of people that produced said data had it stolen.

Not all that needs to be a secret, but it should be private. Even more so, it should be secure.  There indeed have been some wins lately, but much of that has been because of private companies standing up for their consumers – WHICH THEY SHOULD. Do you read me? Apple preventing entities that are not you – the sole owner – from accessing an iPhone or Apple mobile device is a GOOD thing. But don’t get it twisted. You are the driving force of this progress.

So what do you do? Among the tools and strategies linked and discussed above:

I sincerely hope this helps clear things up a bit on what privacy/security/secrecy really is, how it affects you, and how important it is.

I also hear often that encryption is only for criminals. Well, actually it’s for everyone. But if they’re the only ones using it, who’s really the smart people here?

Also, shouts out Chelsea Manning.

*Please note: Not an ad or anything for the EFF – just a big fan.

On the Topic of Campus Accessibility: Access Illinois


Written whilst listening to: The Fusion – Omnia & Ira


By now, the majority of you probably know that my friends and I made an app integrating Google Maps and the campus accessibility maps at the University of Illinois, and subsequently won a Hackathon with it. If you don’t know this, I’ll give you a tl;dr. Our campus provides accessibility maps for students with disabilities to navigate around campus and discover accessible entrances, doors, classrooms, etc. in various campus buildings. This is good, but the maps not been updated in the better part of 5 years, and don’t provide a good means of directions for those that have spatial awareness disabilities. By integrating Google Maps, we’re able to provide a better means of travel for them. They are able to see the entire streets, intersections, bus stops, and more. Google’s API is rather robust in the information that it provides. If you’re curious to read more, here’s a link to our report.

We are certainly looking towards the future and working on some shortcomings and bugs that we’ve encountered. Most notably, Google used to provide support in their JavaScript for adding multiple floors to a building in image overlays, which is what we used to put the building floor plans onto the map. However, they don’t allow that to be done anymore for reasons that are a bit vague. We tried very hard to make sure that the maps included everything that a student would need, but of course it is not entirely helpful if you can’t have an entire building floor plan in one place.

It would also be ideal to include some sort of directional input as well, so that students or users can see directions as they’re walking somewhere as well. Currently, the Google Maps app does very well, but the point remains that it should be integrated into one location to facilitate ease of access. I would love a way to integrate this with our mapping system, though in my knowledge, I’m not sure how easy this would be done.

Much of this I have already detailed in our presentation and report for this project, but I thought it would be good to reiterate especially if someone is new to this. NOW THEN.

On Inclusive Design*

Image result for inclusive design microsoft
Inclusive Design @ Microsoft

Inclusive access is important for a few reasons. Mainly, it’s like the image above. It facilitates access for a wide range of people in the best possible circumstances. In one case, you may have someone who has one arm – this would be something like a disability. In others, you may have someone holding a baby, they also have one arm available, but this is a situational impairment- this can be easily overcome. However, designing interfaces and systems that can accommodate all these types of situations is radically (yes, that phrasing is intentional) important. Similar to universal design, inclusive design aims to reach the broadest audience possible.

Where it differs, however, is that universal design is generally thought of as trying ONLY to target and include those with disabilities, rather than seeing the forest for the trees. While this is indeed necessary, it can sometimes be a pitfall or a trap for designers, or can be seen as something of an afterthought. When discussing inclusive design with regard to Access Illinois, we sought to make sure that we can have something usable by everybody.

Now, this would include:

  • Somebody who’s new on campus needs to get around,
  • visiting scholars or faculty who need to know where a certain door is or where is best to park their car with the best walking route to get somewhere,
  • students using a wheelchair or have a cane need to get around in an easier way and know where the accessible entrances to a building are,
  • and even more than I might think to list! See how that works?

This is where inclusive design can shine. In a way, it takes those left on the fringe or edge cases and incorporate them entirely into the design of a product, a place, a building, or more – WITHOUT negating or impacting the overall function of the result and, in fact, most of the time enhancing it. For these reasons and more, it’s important to consider inclusive design when working out a new product or program.

*This is likely an area for further reflection. I’d welcome comments!

On Widespread Access

It took me a while to think of a header for this section, and I think that widespread access is as close as I can get to ideal for right now. As pointed out to me by a good friend, it’s important to consider access to non-academic as high priority as well. (Note: This applies mostly to a campus setting, though there are myriad community settings as well.) Thinking about it as I’m writing this blog post, I can think of a few times that I wanted to check out the maps for a certain dorm or the like and had a hard time locating the floor plans. Often, they’re buried underneath several pages that aren’t commonly listed for residents and require a fair bit of Google Fu to discover. These can be important for a few reasons, namely:

  • One wants to scope out a new dormitory to live in and needs to know if the layout of a room and/or building is appropriate.
  • One wants to visit a friend and needs to know where an elevator is or when it’s accessible hours are. (Note: In the case of the dorms here at University of Illinois, anyone can eat at any dining hall during dining hours. Doors are unlocked during that time. Elevators aren’t.)
  • Perhaps one wants to stay at a friend’s but needs to know about accessible restroom facilities etc.

These are monumentally important things to keep in mind when we’re working to make our spaces accessible as well, especially as we continue to innovate in our universities and workplaces. Of course, the function of these buildings e.g. academic buildings and workplace barriers are important to remedy, but so too is the support infrastructure around our functional spaces. Often times, this support infrastructure is an investment with an unbelievable rate of return. Negate the disabling effects on someone, and suddenly you’ll notice they’re achieving more than they themselves might have ever thought possible.

That’s my small thesis on inclusive design and how it’s affected by our infrastructure and served by Access Illinois. Of course, my team and I aim to improve on the app as the months go. I want to reflect more on this as time goes as well – a small part (read: probably 80%) of my classes touch on this and I think it’s so important to recognize the human aspect that actually utilizes the technologies we build as engineers.

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