Ian Goldberg in the DC building wearing a red shirt

Ian Goldberg (BMath ’95) 
Professor, Faculty of Math 
Cheriton School of Computer Science 
> Cybersecurity and Privacy Institute 
> Canada Research Chair in Privacy Enhancing Technologies 

When people think about privacy in digital spaces, many think about things like protecting their credit card information. 

But for cybersecurity researcher Ian Goldberg, privacy is a much more expansive concept, one that is intertwined with the possibilities for individual flourishing and the practice of democracy in a digital age.  

Goldberg is the Canada Research Chair in Privacy Enhancing Technologies and a professor in the David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science. His research and innovation in cybersecurity and privacy have made him a giant in the field. 

Along with his academic appointments, Goldberg was chair of the board of directors for one of the best-known and most widely used cybersecurity programs: the original Tor Project and its famous onion browser. 

“Privacy is a much broader concept than just keeping information secret,” he says. “Privacy is about freedom, dignity and autonomy, some of the core ideals of democratic societies.” 

Cybersecurity is about more than protecting personal information 

As Goldberg points out, cybersecurity has evolved in such a way that protecting specific information such as credit cards or personal data is not necessarily the biggest concern.  

“We’re actually quite good at protecting the content of the information that is transferred across the internet,” he says. “What we are less good at is protecting the metadata, which is the information about who is communicating, how long they communicate or who they communicate with. 

“And it turns out you can learn a lot about individuals or companies or even government organizations just by knowing who is communicating with who. All this metadata is information that can be gathered as a consequence of the technologies we use.” 

Examples of this kind of metadata relevant to the public include location data that a smartphone may record, or a list of the websites or social accounts a user may visit or follow. Companies collect and analyze such metadata and may then use it to direct users to specific kinds of content or products. 

An issue of democracy when algorithms create echo chambers 

This amounts to a form of “social sorting” and puts limits on the possibilities for an individual, in the sense that users are purposefully directed to some specific content rather than having an authentic choice.   

It becomes an issue of democracy when algorithms create an echo chamber for political discourse or provide only certain conduits for political information. It becomes even more serious when that social sorting acts as a form of censorship. 

“People need to be able to make decisions and discover themselves, especially youth,” Goldberg says. “Think about those from equity-deserving groups, such as LGBTQ+ youth. They need to be able to discover both themselves and their communities without having all their actions observed and monitored, especially if they live in a place where being queer is illegal, for example. 

“Going a step beyond that, privacy is important as a society because we need people to be able to step out of bounds,” he adds. “The set of laws and social norms we have today are not the best set. It would be hubris to think they are. We need it to be the case that people can violate social norms in order that those social norms can change.” 

In this sense, Goldberg understands cybersecurity and privacy as an issue that is central to the practice of democracy in a digital age. Digital spaces must be free and allow people to discover, collaborate and build productive relationships for 21st Century democracy to thrive. Privacy is the means to make those digital spaces free. 

Privacy and cybersecurity at Waterloo 

Goldberg’s work in cybersecurity and privacy is supported by several initiatives at the University of Waterloo, which he sees as a hub for innovations in privacy. He is a member of the Cryptography, Security and Privacy group and the Cybersecurity and Privacy Institute (CPI). Recently, he has been working on a new interdisciplinary research and teaching program through CPI.   

“CPI has brought together interdisciplinary researchers from all across campus,” he says. “This kind of infrastructure creates a nexus for different kinds of privacy-related work. Waterloo has a tradition of research on the technical side in cryptography, security and privacy that brought together math and computer science and engineering. Now in CPI we bring together researchers in social sciences and humanities as well. It’s an exciting development and already bringing new insights.”