Digital conference takes close look at privacy, surveillance

"Around the World" connects UAlberta experts with fellow researchers in a virtual symposium that spans the globe.


(Edmonton) As technology constantly advances, transforming our everyday lives, experts have repeatedly flagged privacy and surveillance as one of the primary areas of concern for modern societies.

On May 21, a group of scholars will come together to explore these issues for Around the World: Privacy and Surveillance in the Digital Age, a conference hosted by the Kule Institute for Advanced Study (KIAS).

In keeping with the digital theme, the conference participants will connect virtually from sites on almost every continent—beginning with a panel discussion in Ireland and moving to presentations from Italy, the Netherlands, Israel, Japan, Nigeria, Brazil and Australia over the course of the day.

“We’re experimenting with a new kind of conference, and the key is that we want to move ideas, not people,” says project co-ordinator Oliver Rossier. “We’re trying to model a new technique of using digital technology to help reduce costs and environmental impacts.”

The format will be a combination of live presentations and prerecorded videos, with a team of people at the U of A managing the layers of technology required to stream the international content to Edmonton and then back out to the world.

“This shouldn’t be new, because the technology has been around [for awhile], but technology often takes years to really integrate into the social fabric of our communities,” explains Rossier. “How do you integrate new technology into the academic environment?”

KIAS experimented with this approach for the first time last year, with an inaugural “Around the World” conference that focused on technology and culture. It drew participants from nine universities and was viewed by more than 700 people in 25 countries.

Organizers expect this year’s topic to draw a significant amount of interest as well, and are pleased that it gives them the opportunity to showcase the expertise at the U of A, such as world-renowned surveillance researcher Kevin Haggerty from the Department of Sociology.

Haggerty recently received a Killam Research Fellowship and is a co-author (along with fellow conference presenter David Lyon from Queen’s University) of the newly released book Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada. He is one of six U of A researchers who will take part in a panel at 11 a.m., joined by Alberta’s information and privacy commissioner, Jill Clayton. 

“KIAS exists to celebrate our researchers, so any time we can create a forum where our talented researchers get to connect out to the rest of the world, we feel very good,” says Rossier.

“The most important outcome in general is the research dialogue that happens,” he adds. “When you share ideas, especially across disciplines or across national boundaries, you can start to explore nuances of your research area that you hadn’t thought of before that moment.”

Conference presentations and panels will be live-streamed from the Around the World website throughout the day. Anyone can ask a question or submit a comment through Twitter, using the handle @KIASAlberta and the hashtag #UofAworld.

For those we aren’t able to take part on Wednesday, all of the video from the conference will be archived and available on the website within a week or two after the event.