Inside Philadelphia's growing internet privacy community - Technical.ly Philly

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Jul. 8, 2015 11:39 am

Inside Philadelphia’s growing internet privacy community

Can Philly, birthplace of America, become a hub for internet freedom, too? A celebrated conference on privacy technology was hosted by Drexel last week.

Drexel University hosted the 2015 Privacy Enhancing Technologies Symposium (PETS).

(Photo by Juliana Reyes)

Nima Fatemi is a cypherpunk.

That means he’s part of a class of privacy advocates who use encryption to protect the privacy of people on the internet. Fatemi, 27, is especially focused on Iran, his home country, where there is what he calls an “arms race” when it comes to internet privacy.

The government tries to block Tor — free software that allows you to browse the web anonymously — and people like Fatemi, who’s a Tor volunteer, fight back.

That’s why he was in Philadelphia last week: to discuss, debate and improve the state of online privacy. He was one of 145 attendees of PETS (Privacy Enhancing Technologies Symposium), a three-day conference held at Drexel University this year.

The conference, which generally alternates between Europe and North America and grew out of a workshop in Berkeley, Calif., in 2000, has a scholarly bent, featuring research papers on topics like censorship resistance, anonymous communication and identity protection, but the crowd is more than just academics, said conference co-organizer Rachel Greenstadt, who spoke with us on the last day of the conference, while attendees took a break from talks for late afternoon ice cream sundaes. Greenstadt runs Drexel’s Privacy, Security, and Automation Laboratory. Attendees come from industry, the nonprofit sector and the free and open source software world.

One unifying factor of the attendees is their belief in the cause, said co-organizer Apu Kapadia of Indiana University.

It’s “a crowd that values theory and practice,” he said. One that “cares about privacy not only as an intellectual problem.”

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“Take three!” (Photo by Juliana Reyes)

The conference comes to Philadelphia at a time when the region’s internet privacy scene is growing. That’s due to a number of factors, including:

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It also helps that Tor, one of the leaders in the international internet freedom scene, has a presence in Philadelphia. Cofounder and executive director Roger Dingledine is based here, as is director of communications Kate Krauss.

The conference was a busy time for Dingledine, Krauss told us, because it was a chance for him to workshop Tor with graduate students and other privacy experts and figure out how to make it better. It’s an opportunity for him to be a community leader and a research director, she said.

One talk during the conference showed video of computer screens as journalists tried to download Tor for the first time. Attendees watched as the cursors moved haphazardly across the screen. The conclusion? We need to work on Tor’s user experience, Krauss said. It was a sentiment that Fatemi echoed, that it’s important to focus on the usability of this type of software, not just the privacy aspect. (Krauss added that those Tor usability issues had been fixed.)

Tor authors had a strong presence at the conference, with about one-quarter of the talks featuring Tor contributors.

Philly’s internet privacy scene is growing, but Greenstadt pointed out that the city itself has matured. That’s partly why she wanted Drexel to host this year’s symposium.

“I really wanted to bring my community to Philadelphia,” Greenstadt said.

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