DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has embarked on a mission that is different from it’s original goal. As you may know, it was designed to be an all-seeing digital surveillance system to hunt for terrorists. However, when Edward Snowden went public with just how much spying the government was doing, there was a public backlash. That backlash forced congress to shut the the prism program down.
Called the Brandeis Project, DARPA’s new project is to pursue privacy technology. The name Brandeis is a reference to the supreme court justice, Louis Brandeis. He wrote an influential essay called “The Right to Privacy” that was co-authored by Samuel D. Warren and published in the Harvard Law Review in 1890 making the case that safeguarding privacy was the key to individual freedom.
Interestingly, the big threat to privacy back then came from the Kodak film camera. Instead of having to pose and sit still for photos, the camera could capture images of people in spontaneous and everyday poses. Then, people were taking pictures of people in all sorts of public places like beaches, cities, and ballrooms. These individuals were regarded as pests, and were banned from beaches and even the Washington Monument for a time.
Last week, DARPA hosted a three day conference and invited 1,200 scientists and technologists in an attempt to persuade entrepreneurs and researchers to collaborate with them. The Brandeis project will run for 4.5 years, and will have a budget of tens of millions of dollars. Now that the project is underway and the groups have been selected, the first meetings will take place in October.
Many of the researchers and schools involved are working on their own privacy technology projects, and DARPA will fund the beginnings of work in different fields. Some of these are advanced cryptography, multiparty differential privacy, and a digital assistant that will learn and anticipate the privacy settings a user would want. That is a far cry from people just accepting the default settings because the privacy settings are too complex.
The goal is to give privacy back to the user, and by doing so encourage information to flow freely. That can only happen if there is trust in society. In an era where data is mined from the user on all sides, some of these projects will at least limit the information footprint people leave during every day life. There is still quite a way to go, but this is a good step in the right direction.