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Brooklyn Law hosts `Legal Hackers’; latest discussion eyes online privacy

For Brooklyn Daily Eagle

In the Wild West days of the Internet, circa 1990, the term “hacker” carried a sinister connotation.

It was used to describe rogue computer programmers who prowled the net, using their powers to infiltrate mainframe security systems and cause general chaos on the World Wide Web.  

For reference, see the 1995 film Hackers staring a young Angelina Jolie, a fine motion picture.  

Flash forward to 2012, where insiders in the tech community have flipped the term “hacker” and abandoned the negative connotation. They’re using it to describe creative, collaborative and benevolent computer geeks, who use their powers to create innovative technology solutions and share them with the world, usually for free.  

Two graduates of Brooklyn Law School, Phil Weis (’12) and Warren Allen (’12), and one current BLS student, Alexander Goldman (’13), recently created the Legal Hackers Meetup. There, lawyers, techies and students come together to examine policy issues from a legal perspective and look for innovative solutions, or as they call them “hacks.”

For those not familiar with the parlance, Meetups are gatherings, organized through the website Meetup.com, that focus on common interests ranging from professional development, networking and entrepreneurship to dating and kickball.  People attend Meetups to socialize, share ideas, and connect with others who share similar passions.  The idea: Put motivated people in a room together and see what happens.

Last week, Brooklyn Law School hosted the second-ever Legal Hackers Meetup, inviting members of the legal, academic and tech communities to come together and discuss a the embattled issue of mobile privacy.  

This gathering featured a forum of experts in the field of mobile privacy, including Veronica Picciafuoco of Docracy, Sarah Feingold of Etsy and David Pashman of Meetup.com. Moderating the discussion was the director of the Brooklyn Law Incubator and Policy (BLIP) Clinic, Professor Jonathan Askin.

Professor Jonathan Askin and Veronica Picciafuoco.  Photo by Alex O’Sullivan-Pierce

In a nutshell, the issue of mobile privacy can be described as a dispute over how distributors of mobile technology should, or should not be, allowed to use and collect information from their consumers. Along with their commercial success in the manufacturing and sale of mobile technology, companies like Apple and HP have also acquired the tremendously valuable assets of their users’ data, including location, health and financial information.  

Recently, both the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the California Attorney General have called on these major mobile app distributors to abide by agreements that protect consumer privacy.  Facebook and Twitter are among the companies who have been accused of being less than forthcoming about their collection, retention and use of consumer data.  In response, regulatory bodies, such as the FTC, are basically saying to these companies: you can collect data, but do not be evil; be transparent, and do not mislead the consumer as to the way you collect and use their data.

The problem, said Pashman, is that, “One person’s invasion of privacy is another’s sustainable business model.”  

While privacy advocates certainly have reason to be concerned about the use of consumer data, entrepreneurs and business folk are quick to point out that free sites, such as Facebook, are able to exist partially because they capture some of their users’ data. The difficulty is in balancing full transparency and disclosure, with the need to foster innovation.  

What nearly everyone can agree on is that biggest problem is those sites that sell consumer information to third parties without consent of their users.

Other conscientious companies, such as Meetup, and their well-intentioned executives feel a sense of duty to inform their consumers and uphold privacy agreements.  Alluding to the questionable integrity of selling data to third parties, Pashman says, “This is why we don’t play the affiliate marketing game.”  

Based on the robust debate at last week’s Meetup, it is evident that mobile privacy is and will continue to be a major issue at the intersection of law, commerce and technology.  Good thing we have our Legal Hackers on the case.

September 13, 2012 - 10:59am


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