'It cannot be right that the state is the only arbiter of the public interest,' argues the new Lady Margaret Hall principal Alan Rusbridger at his first Oxford talk.

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by Guy Collender

Alan Rusbridger, former editor of The Guardian and incoming principal of Lady Margaret Hall, argued at a packed Oxford lecture that digital communications cannot be managed by politicians alone and that they need software engineers on board to protect our privacy.  

Rusbridger described how Western democracies are struggling to understand international and interlinked concerns in the digital age, including the complexities of security, encryption, and press freedom. He warned that the enormity of these subjects is beyond the grasp of MPs preparing legislation to address such issues. 

He shared the drama of publishing the NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden in The Guardian in 2013 with the audience at this year's Alumni Weekend. To illustrate his point he showed an image of the eviscerated laptop destroyed at the behest of the British Government - even though the same data on that laptop was available in New York. John_Cairns

He urged vigilance and argued persuasively against all digital data being retained by the authorities. He predicted an outcry if a policeman asked to confiscate all the paper records from your house, and warned that there is no public understanding of what is happening with digital records.

'It cannot be right that the state is the only arbiter of the public interest,' said Rusbridger. 'There has to be an immense campaign of public understanding. Things that would never be allowed in the analogue world are happening in the digital world.'

In the lecture, entitled The 21st century surveillance state: implications of the Snowden revelations, Rusbridger also undermined politicians’ reassurances that analysing metadata is not intrusive. He recognised threats to security and called for agencies to have encryption and computing capabilities, but warned of the dangers of surveillance, spoke about the need for proper oversight, and emphasised that there is no such thing as a secure database.Snowden

He added: 'My appeal is to try and get software engineers to help inform this debate. There are an immense number of complex and interrelated issues and we need to find a way of talking about them.'

The discussion was summarised by Rusbridger’s dense and interconnected handwritten brainstorm, which was projected onto the screen. From confidentiality and the digital economy to telecommunications, international relations and more, the web of concerns is truly extensive.

The popular event was the Software Engineering Programme Annual Lecture organised by Oxford’s Department of Computer Science, and part of the Kellogg College 25th Anniversary Programme.

Images © John Cairns