Internet Ethics Champion Talks About Why She Advocates Strongly for Privacy

The Romanian-born lawyer focuses on internet ethics at Santa Clara University's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

by Patrick May, Mercury News / August 19, 2016 0

(TNS) — Growing up in communist Romania, Irina Raicu developed an innate appreciation for both the value of privacy and its fragility when threatened.

And it all started with a hand over the telephone.

"I think one of the reasons that I feel as strongly as I do today about privacy is that I can still remember people in Romania talking on the phone and covering the receiver before telling an anti-government joke," says Raicu, now a champion of privacy rights as director of the internet ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. "While the chances that they were being listened to were small, people still didn't want to take that risk.

"I left the country as a teenager, but that sense of oppressive surveillance stayed with me, and I realized it years later when I started working on privacy issues."

Privacy is a top-of-mind matter for Raicu, as rapidly evolving technologies seem to pose new ethical dilemmas more quickly than we can even process their impact. Wrestling with issues from cyberbullying to net neutrality to the digital divide and fair access to bandwidth, Raicu is writing, researching and advocating as fast as she can, trying to keep up with this dizzying evolution.

We spoke with her recently. Her comments have been edited for length and clarity:

Q How did growing up in Romania leave a profound impression on you about things like personal privacy and the threats to it?

A It wasn't so much simply a distrust of government but of anything that had that power over you to make you think twice before saying something out loud to other people. In the United States, where we've taken privacy for granted, the more we now have this sense that our privacy is being invaded through the internet, the more we're realizing we need to protect it.

Q You came to Silicon Valley when you were 13. What was that transition like?

A My parents were both electrical engineers, so this was the place to be. I started at Mountain View High School, and it was absolutely surreal. Silicon Valley felt like a different planet in some ways. Everything I knew about the U.S. was from watching TV shows back in Romania, and then suddenly I find myself in sunny California. That can be tough for a kid with funny hair and a funny accent. It was pretty jarring.

Q You eventually graduated with a degree in English from UC Berkeley?

A I'd always loved anything to do with language and writing, but in Romania I didn't think there was anything I could do with that as a career. But once I got to the States, everything suddenly opened up for me. At first, I was planning on becoming a college teacher.

Q But in the end, after getting a master's in English and American literature at San Jose State and teaching there, you went to Santa Clara University to study law.

A My interest in law came about with the 2000 election and the whole Bush-Gore debate. I was reading a lot about election law, and I was loving it. When the Supreme Court decision came down I read the decision and the dissent and I realized, boy, these people can sure write. And since writing was what I always liked doing, I ended up going into law.

Q After practicing law for a while, you saw the opening at the Markkula Center.

A I interviewed and thought the position, which was new, was really interesting. I got the job in 2012. The center's been around a long time and has a variety of ethics programs, but they realized that an internet ethics program now made sense because the internet had become such an important part of everyone's lives. And it was presenting unique challenges that other schools weren't addressing.

Q What are some of the things you're working on these days?

A We have a lot of scholars and faculty from philosophy and other departments who work with us on internet issues. I don't teach, but I give a lot of talks that are open to the public. We put together teaching materials for college-level classes, offering ethical case studies dealing with the internet and a teaching module on software engineering ethics. Some of the privacy issues that come up could be addressed earlier in the software-development process if engineers were only trained to see them early on as ethical issues.

Q What's an example?

A Take "Pokémon Go." After the game first came out, there was an upgrade, because on Android, it was asking users if it could access their entire Google account. But the maker of the app really didn't need to have that sort of access for people to be able to play the game. So there was an upgrade, and the company quickly said that that was a mistake and it's fixed now.

Q But privacy issues are probably front and center in the work you do?

A There are all these efforts now to "bake" privacy into products from the very beginning, rather than trying to strap on protections later. We're trying to get engineers to think about how their product will affect users down the road, and we're asking professors in software engineering courses to start bringing these issues up with their students. So far, our materials are being used in over 30 colleges and universities.

Q What other issues are you focused on?

A Equality of access is a big one. With the digital divide, and now the broadband divide, you have people from poorer households with slower access, so that kids have to sit in a car outside McDonald's to get Wi-Fi so they can do their homework.

Q What sorts of concerns do users have these days about some of these ethical dilemmas you're focused on?

A Studies show that people don't want to be tracked and they don't want the kind of widespread data collection that's happening out there. You sometimes hear that young people don't care about privacy, but all the research I'm reading says that's wrong -- they do care, and they're finding ways on their own to protect their privacy.

Q How?

A For a lot of young people, the biggest threat to privacy that they perceive is their own parents. They're not worrying about big business, but about keeping things from their parents, and kids are taking defensive measures to prevent them from watching everything they do online. For example, they'll use Snapchat to communicate, in part because the messages and images will disappear.

Q What online dangers do you see in the future?

A Things are happening so quickly in tech that we're having to respond to things we couldn't have foreseen just a few years ago. I worry about the fact that tracking users online has become an arms race. There are technologists trying to find ways to disable cookies, for example, and then new tracking methods will come along and we all find out after the fact that this has happened. We shouldn't feel like we're being undermined in our efforts to protect things like privacy. And there are things we can do, like asking for laws to be passed and to establish moral rules of behavior that say, "Not in my society."

5 FACTS ABOUT IRINA RAICU

1. She loves Israeli folk dancing (and does it at least once a week).

2. In the high-tech Bay Area, she still reads novels on paper.

3. She has mastered the making of mamaliga (a Romanian version of polenta) in the microwave.

4. Her writings on internet ethics-related issues have appeared in Recode, Slate, Marketwatch, the Mercury News, USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Huffington Post.

5. She is a certified information privacy professional.

Irina Raicu

Age: 48

Birth place: Romania

Position: Director of the internet ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Santa Clara University.

Previous jobs: She worked as an attorney for two years after graduating from law school; before law school, she worked in marketing communications for two textbook publishing companies (McGraw-Hill Higher Education, and Mayfield Publishing). She also taught writing at San Jose State and at CSU Hayward, and co-authored an anthology for college writing courses titled "Transitions: Lives in America."

Education: Bachelor's in English from UC Berkeley (1989); master's in English and American literature from San Jose State (1992); juris doctor from Santa Clara University School of Law (2009).

Family: She is married and has two children.

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