Bart Jacobs is Professor of Security, Privacy, and Identity at Radboud University (RU) and won a Stevens Award for his work in October. He is committed to privacy in the digital world, including our university. “Dutch universities immediately started lying on their backs in favor of big tech companies.”
The professor appears appropriately on the screen, i.e. over a certified video connection, so that you know for sure who you are calling. He’s not afraid of being hacked, but he explains: “Strictly speaking, we don’t know each other and you can be kind of sneaky.” His caution correlates seamlessly with his expertise in the digital identity field.
Early in his career, Jacobs focused his research more on solving technical problems surrounding data protection. Jacobs says he only got involved in the social debate about privacy later. Jacobs did this in his research and through various assistant positions. The importance of his work to society earned him the Stephen Award, one of the highest awards in science. Jacobs criticizes the impact of big tech companies on society and warns of the dangers of handing our data to big tech companies like Facebook. He also criticizes the irreversibility of switching to Microsoft within his university. What drives him in his research and social engagement in privacy protection?
You might not think about it when you sign in with your Facebook or Google account on another website, but privacy monitor Jacobs advises you to think carefully about it. He announces in a serious tone why he objects to this login method. Facebook can tell which websites a person visits. This gives this company a lot of data about you to build a digital profile. Facebook can then manipulate you on its own sites in a more targeted way, for example through ads, the professor explains with concern. Since it is not transparent what happens to your data once it is delivered, it is difficult to monitor your privacy. Jacobs is absolutely skeptical of how login currently works in terms of privacy. If you use an account specific to that site, Facebook and Google won’t be able to tell you were there. However, the company behind the website stores your account information in a database, and according to the professor, you often have to provide the company with much more information than is necessary. Thus, handling online data collection is highly privacy sensitive, according to Jacobs. “That’s why I think it’s important that the implications for user privacy are taken into account when designing digital environments.”
So it is not surprising that the professor is looking for alternative ways to log in. He developed technology to better protect people’s data and limit the power of big tech companies like Google and Facebook. “This is not giving all of your information to a company, but only what is relevant in this context,” the professor explains. In its own developed app called IRMA (I reveal my qualities), uses this technology. To illustrate how trait-based login works, Jacobs provides an example of a video game with a minimum age: “With this login method, you only show the fact that you are eighteen years old as information about you to access the game.
Game makers no longer need a database of unnecessary information, such as your gender. Jacobs uses his background in mathematics to explore ways to encode data in a way that the game cannot see, but can trust that the age is correct. Jacobs concludes, “You protect people’s privacy by giving them control over the information they want to publish.”
It is not only the individual user who needs protection. In the debate over privacy, Jacobs also argues that we should be wary of malicious digital forces at the political level. According to him, the power behind technology is becoming an increasingly important geopolitical topic, especially in Europe: “There is also talk of technological colonialism.” The professor is disappointed that there are no major European digital platforms. “I think we should develop our own technology in Europe and not adopt what they have found in the United States or China,” Jacobs says. According to him, it is important that we are able to maintain our own privacy standards and not be dependent on the legislation in those countries. Jacobs explains the problem: “About ninety percent of all European data, including sensitive data, is stored on American servers.” In light of that country’s political instability, he adds sarcastically: “It gives you a little bit of an uncomfortable feeling.”
Sighs, he says RU has also left itself a victim of American digital power. He notes with disappointment that “since the software has switched to Office 365, a large group of the United States has access to endless data from the university in one fell swoop”. Jacobs says the danger lurks in him: “If an American president decides that American IT companies should not be allowed to process Iranian personal data, then suddenly Iranian students will not be welcome at our university. without us having any control over it. Microsoft is clearly not the only problem, our mail system can also believe in foreign interference. “The US company Proofpoint scans emails for suspicious links, thus gaining access to RU’s internal message traffic.” Jacobs is deeply concerned about these developments: “Because of the switch, the university gives up a certain amount of autonomy.”
Attendance requirement for employers
In addition to international relations, Jacobs is also concerned with privacy within the university. “At the university, there are more and more operations that are being done digitally and that includes all kinds of extra data,” he says. “That data can be used. As a teacher, for example, after a few weeks I can receive a warning that there are students who never log in or only check in at night, which could indicate to me that something is not right with the student. However, You can dispute whether the use of this data is relevant to the student learning process, Jacobs rightly suggests.The professor believes that it is important for the university to take care of the dangers of privacy breaches involved in digitization.However, much of this data is now in the possession of private parties, Thus they have more control over it through their possession.He tells hardly what kind of horror scenario could arise: “They can make profiles of it to sell to their employers in the future.” The professor adds: “Employers see, for example, that you are someone who does nothing all the time. The entire semester and study begins right before the exam.” Jacobs would find this data misuse as well as a violation of privacy. “I argue in favor of keeping study-related data within the learning environment, so that this data doesn’t end up with employers.”
According to him, the various horror scenarios that the professor is talking about could be avoided if “common values” were integrated into our digital systems. Last year, the professor and the Dutch Universities Consortium issued tips on how to do this in the field of education. In the advice, privacy, transparency in core technologies, and protection against abuse and manipulation stand out as important public values. “It is difficult and expensive to arrange your ICT management. This is easier for big parties like Microsoft. Moreover, they are keen to embrace this,” Jacobs explains as an explanation for not protecting these values in education. So the professor believes that the responsibility for making decisions should lie More on the board, not the ICT department: “ICT professionals are looking at the technically easier options. However, once you get to work with such a special gig, you often can’t get away with it. He continues: “Microsoft has absolutely no interest in its systems being compatible with others, for example ensuring more privacy,” Jacobs says anxiously. So the professor criticizes all Dutch universities because, in his opinion, they have made little effort to protect values such as privacy. He points to our neighboring country to make it clear that this could be done better: “In Germany the universities have been more active, and there they have set up a common cloud infrastructure.”
Universities in Germany have chosen to better protect public values. Even if politicians and administrators don’t see it often, Jacobs wants to show that such a choice has always existed. With the Stevin Prize he won, he and José Van Dyck, Professor of Digital Society and Spinoza Prize Laureate, will create a digital social platform based on privacy and transparency. “People can use this platform to create closed groups, for example from a department at a university, where they can communicate securely without being on US servers,” he says. He concludes with concern but hope: “If we want to preserve the autonomy of our community, we have to make choices and adjust our investments.”
This article previously appeared in the ANS 4 newspaper.
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