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MIT Better World

By Catherine Caruso SM ’16

“It’s like a fusion of MIT technical talent and legal knowledge from Georgetown,” explains Andrew Bartow, a senior in computer science who took the class his sophomore year. “Together we try to write a law that improves the state of internet privacy in the United States.”

Now in its fourth year, 6.S978, Privacy Legislation: Law and Technology was born in part out of co-instructor Daniel Weitzner’s experience in the White House as Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Internet Policy. “We were in need of more technically grounded, objective research to help us assess policy options. And it was frankly hard to figure out who to hire to work on these issues,” recalls Weitzner, a principal research scientist at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) who founded the MIT Internet Policy Research Initiative. Returning from Washington to MIT, Weitzner decided to create a course that could help engineers and lawyers bridge that gap. At the start of the course—which Weitzner teaches with Class of 1922 Professor of Computer Science and Engineering Hal Abelson PhD ’73—15 Georgetown law students come to MIT for a day and join 15 MIT engineering students for what Weitzner calls a “boot camp” on privacy law and technology. From there, weekly meetings are held in a virtual space that merges physical classrooms at MIT and Georgetown.

Students also form small groups, each composed of two law and two engineering students, that spend the semester drafting legislation related to a particular technology, ranging from smart thermostats to self-driving cars. For the last class, MIT students fly to DC, and each group presents its proposal to a panel that has included senators, federal trade commissioners, policy leaders in industry, and policy advocate groups.

“They really do outstanding work, and I would say the ideas that they develop and the kind of seriousness with which they present them are really every bit as good as a lot of the ideas for which I was on the receiving end when I was sitting in the White House,” Weitzner says, adding that some proposals have generated interest among state policy makers and legislators, and others have been published in technology law reviews at Yale and Harvard.

Bartow’s project focused on law enforcement access to data gathered by in-home smart devices like an Amazon Echo or a Google Nest thermostat: he recalls his group carefully cross-referencing the Electronic Communications Privacy Act with the Google Nest policy on one screen and the Amazon Echo policy on another.

“What we discovered is that if you had a lot of these devices in your home, law enforcement could really get a pretty intimate picture of what’s going on in your home without ever having to go to a court and get a warrant,” Bartow explains. “There’s a gap in the law that you could drive a truck through.” Closing that gap proved tricky—Bartow describes going back and forth with the law students in his group to address concerns for individual privacy without impeding the progress of technology or interfering with the needs of law enforcement. However, Bartow says practicing that interdisciplinary communication was one of the most valuable parts of the course. “A lot of problems, whether it be internet privacy or global warming, take a combination of technical problem solving and smart policy making to get the job done,” he observes.

Sunoo Park SM ’15, a PhD candidate in computer science, became interested in privacy law while conducting her doctoral research on cryptography. Last spring, her 6.S978 group drafted a bill that would more clearly define when and how law enforcement can access location data (e.g., GPS) from people’s personal devices. “The existing laws were not designed with the technological landscape of today in mind, in most cases, and the technology has changed the way that people interact with their devices on an everyday basis,” she notes.

From left, Georgetown Law student Speare Hodges and MIT students Mary DuBard and Sunoo Park presented the bill they had drafted, along with Georgetown Law student Sara Ainsworth (not pictured), during an April 2017 session in DC. Photo: Bill Petros Photography

Park says the course provided her with a deeper understanding of the components of effective legislation: “It was interesting to think about what is important to be written down or might be reasonably left open to interpretation.” She also appreciated how the class revealed some of the unresolved questions engendered by the pace of innovation in her field. “One of the challenges is that tech is changing so fast,” she says, “and typically laws don’t change so fast.”

Weitzner is pleased when his students come away from 6.S978 energized by such challenges. “A core mission of MIT’s new Internet Policy Research Initiative is to help students discover how they can contribute to solving internet policy challenges,” he says. “To a lot of people, the law is sort of a black art, and to a lot of other people, computer science is a black art. I think the engineering and law students see they can cut through whatever mystery there is—but that they need each other to do it.”