Proof of the celestial-level brainpower of the 200 or so attendees comes from just reciting their names and deeds. Ron Rivest, MIT professor who is the 'R' in the famous RSA public key encryption algorithm. Whitfield Diffie, who gave us Diffie-Hellman key exchange.
Without these gents, there'd probably be no eBay, Amazon or online banking. Or at least, we wouldn't be able to trust them. Diffie, now vice-president and a fellow at Sun Microsystems, came to accept an award but stayed for the whole conference, signing his books and engaging in great hallway chats. "I did one hour of good work back in 1975," he laughs, "and I've been dining out on it ever since."
CFP is part conference, part cabal, part action group. It's been going for 18 years now, and, because they're so darned smart, these people really do get listened to. Many have recently testified before the U.S. Congress, the Federal Trade Commission and the Canadian Parliament.
Probably the best example of their collective clout came in the early 1990s when the CFP braintrust helped scuttle a U.S. government scheme to put a "Clipper Chip" into every new telephone. This would allow ordinary people to converse more securely but also let the police and government agencies "with proper authority" to listen to our conversations. Yikes! Clipper was defeated - though, in one form or another, law enforcement is still trying to get their hands on electronic communications.
The previous Liberal government introduced a bill to force Internet service providers to help spy on Canadians. It died on the order paper and the Harper government has not re-introduced it. However, Liberal MP Marlene Jennings gave first reading to a substantially similar bill this past March.
It's sure to inspire controversy, and you can track the bun fight at www.cipic.ca, the excellent website of the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic. The majority of the CFP gurus don't like the idea one bit.
Perennial CFP favourite Bruce Schneier has written about "Greek wiretapping," a scandal in which "unknowns tapped the mobile phones of about 100 Greek politicians and offices, including the U.S. embassy in Athens and the Greek prime minister.
Schneier has determined that the eavesdropping code in the Vodafone mobile network was a feature that was put into the system for the police. Schneier concludes that when you build surveillance mechanisms into communication systems, "you invite the bad guys to use those mechanisms for their own purposes."
China's monitoring and control of Internet communications is legendary, far-reaching and secretive. So it was refreshing to hear from Dhondup Namgyal of the Tibetan Technology Centre. Based in Dharamsala, home of the Dalai Lama's government in exile, TibTec's goal is to harness modern technology for helping the Tibetan community in India.
They accomplish this through a robust "mesh network" and yes, they need to make their gear weather-resistant and monkey-proof. Namgyal told CFP attendees that this technology is bringing not only Internet but even "poor man's VoIP" telephony to people in his community.
In a panel on emerging privacy issues, several "canaries in the coal mine" told their stories to alert us to privacy issues that are coming.
Mara (formerly Mark) Kieseling is executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Center for Transgender Equity. At airport security, should Kieseling be frisked by a man or a woman?
"They haven't even thought about us, though the (U.S. Transportation Security Administration) has a policy on 'helper monkeys,' which are like seeing-eye dogs," said Kieseling. "So we know where we rank."
While Kieseling's concerns may seem esoteric, she points out that emerging plans for electronic health records and digital ID cards will affect more than transgendered people. If your complete medical history becomes available to anyone with access to a card reader, people may form opinions that could affect your medical care. Taking Viagra? Prozac? Had cosmetic surgery? You might need to worry if somebody doesn't like your medical record.
Worry even more if you live in a low-income housing development in a rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood. According to U.S. writer Dave Jamieson, surveillance cameras track the every move of many Washington, D.C., apartment residents.
That's pretty common - you'll find lobby and elevator cameras in Calgary, Vancouver and Toronto. But in Faircliff Plaza West in Washington, they take it one step further. Voices boom out from loudspeakers, saying things like "Hey, you in the green shirt, stop sitting on the steps, you're loitering."
Whether or not it's actually loitering to sit on the steps of the building where you live is moot - the chilling effect is clear. Housing developers take note: People don't like being watched and they like it even less if they're disciplined by an invisible and all-seeing Big Brother voice.
Do you have one of those cute little Bluetooth headsets for your cellphone? Maybe your new laptop is Bluetooth-enabled. Guess what? You can be "discovered" by other Bluetooth devices.
At the MIT Media Lab, researchers gave free Bluetooth-enabled cellphones to 100 students and staff on the condition that they leave them turned on. Soon the phones started to find each other, and the researchers had an elaborate map of where everybody was, at what time, and who they were near.
Findings included just who is going to class and who isn't, and who's waking up in whose dorm room. In fact, a similar experiment at an Intel lab in the U.K. uncovered some previously undisclosed overnight sleeping arrangements among professional staff.
Thinking about privacy is hard work. So in CFP tradition, this year saw some fine partying, including a soiree at the Montreal loft of Canadian high-tech entrepreneur Austin Hill. He took a good swing at bringing Internet security to the masses with Zero-Knowledge Systems, which at its peak had over 220 employees in Montreal and San Jose.
That's in the past for Hill now, but he's back in the game with a social networking project called Akoha. Its website claims that Akoha is inspired by the ancient tribal custom of gift exchanges. "Our project aims to bring people closer together through these principles."
For now, Austin's keeping the rest of the details private.
(Tom Keenan is a professor at the University of Calgary and an expert on technology and its social implications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)