Just how safe is your digital identity? Not very, according to Brendan O’Connor ’04, computer scientist and computer security expert. And he wants to do something about it.
Brendan returned to campus last weekend to research CreepyDOL, a project he developed to show just how much identity data gets leaked via wifi from our mobile phones, tablets, and computers. Brendan installed small black boxes he developed at various locations around campus that tracked location while looking for email addresses, names, and photos. His goal, he explains, is to develop a body of proof that he can use to help influence software developers and policy makers regarding data collection and privacy.
“It is proof of concept that the devices we use every day—phones, tablets, laptops, etc.—leak a huge amount of identity data, not just to governments, but to everyday passers-by with an interest in those around them,” Brendan explains. “In essence, someone can spend a few hundred dollars on electronics to replace a 24-hour-a-day work of a team of private investigators. Needless to say, this isn’t good.”
Brendan, who is nearly finished with a law degree from University of Wisconsin, has spent the past two and a half years working on tools that “promote the democratization and availability of technology.” He’s spoken at several national conferences, and hopes to use the research from his UWC-USA visit to present at conferences in Norway and the U.S.
One of his biggest concerns is privacy. “Privacy is fundamental if we want civilization,” Brendan says. “Without it, we won’t take risks and fail. The ability to get things wrong sometimes is incredibly important.”
Brendan, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science, has been a tech geek since he was three. Yes, you read that correctly. Brendan went to preschool at a teaching college in Montana, and was given access to an Apple 2 computer. He’s been “making computers do crazy things” ever since.
The law degree will supplement his computer science work by giving Brendan the ability to pursue policy issues related to computer security. Ultimately, he wants corporations and organizations that collect individuals’ data—everyone from retailers to health care providers—to be held accountable for the security of every piece of data that is collected. Most companies and organizations encrypt certain elements of data, but Brendan wants them to be responsible for all data they choose to collect.
When he’s not consumed by computer security, Brendan creates software and other devices that he makes available for free via the web. He’s convinced that the benefits of technology far outweigh the negative ways it can be used.
“You’re never a victim of technology,” says Brendan. “You can be a victim of bad people, or a friend of good. Technology just lets people express themselves.”