This post was originally published on October 14, 2016.
Despite 2016 being the first year ExpressVPN offered its Future of Privacy Scholarship, the competition was intense. There were more than 700 entries, and essays ranged from the serious to the contemplative to the whimsical.
Students pulled inspiration from across disciplines. There were quotes from the U.S. Constitution, allusions to George Orwell, and descriptions of complex technological systems. A number of applications used speculative fiction to analyze the future of internet privacy.
All of this is to say: It was pretty tough picking the winners.
However, there were three who managed to stand out from the crowd: Grand-prize winner Eliza Lindley, second-place winner Matt Nealey, and third-place winner Carla Blum-Johnston. All three wowed ExpressVPN with their unique views on privacy and its place in American society.
ExpressVPN got a chance to ask the winners some questions and learn the secret to their success.
A high schooler with a creative approach
Eliza Lindley, a sophomore at Mount Horeb High School in Mount Horeb, WI, knew immediately how she wanted to approach the essay. “I feel that one of my strengths is creative writing,” she explains, “and from the beginning, I thought I would have more fun expressing my ideas through an interesting short story rather than an argumentative essay.”
The result is a brief but compelling tale of a future where data from human brains has gone online. However, privacy comes under threat, and it’s only through both government and private sector intervention that people’s data is secured.
Eliza was inspired to write her essay after her involvement in Future Problem Solvers (FPS), a program aimed at helping students think critically and creatively about future issues. Participants are asked to research various real-world topics before solving a so-called “Future Scene.”
“I always admired the writing used in Future Scenes, so that was my main inspiration, especially for the format and style”
While researching her essay, Eliza came across the 2045 Initiative, a project founded by Russian entrepreneur Dmitry Itskov. The initiative’s goal is to enable human immortality through digitalization of the human brain. In her essay, Eliza took the concept a step further by questioning the consequences such a technology could have on personal privacy.
Given that she’s still in high school, Eliza has yet to choose a major. However, in the future, she hopes to combine her “passion for nature and the environment” with her “love of words and languages.”
As for the greater future of internet privacy? Eliza is somewhat optimistic.
“I have faith that privacy protection will adapt and grow right along with the technologies and platforms that necessitate increased security,” she says. “This evolution is necessary because humans will continue to use and abuse, or even be ‘used’ by, technology. The internet is just one example in our lives.”
An engineer explores aging in another age
For his essay, Matthew Nealey, a second-year at Lake Superior College, imagined how his generation will be dealing with data collection in 2050. He ended up telling the story of an elderly man who decides to disconnect from data-gathering devices of the future.
Matthew got inspiration from observing the lives of today’s elderly. “[They] are perfectly content in how they live their lives,” he notes, “slightly behind the current generation in technological integration.”
And he has no doubt that the trend will continue:
“The boundaries of technology will continue to expand and reach new heights, and our children and grandchildren will be completely accustomed to a way of living that was introduced and competed with us and our current way of life.”
An aspiring doctor takes a critical look at the NSA
Walla Walla University junior Carla Blum-Johnston spent her sophomore year volunteering as a teacher in Malawi. While she witnessed “great love and generosity” during her time abroad, she also saw startling instances of intolerance and inequality.
Memories of Malawi’s unpleasant side came back to Carla when she read one of the ExpressVPN Future of Privacy Scholarship essay prompts. Specifically, it was a quote from Edward Snowden that got to her: Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.
“Upon further reflection,” Carla says, “I remembered that the restriction of one freedom is a restriction of every freedom, and I was inspired to remind my fellow American citizens that we must defend our right to privacy in order to defend every right ensured to us by our Constitution.”
Carla decided to write an essay asserting the validity of Snowden’s statement. She also consulted numerous outside sources, including the Constitution, Forbes, and a poem by Holocaust survivor Martin Niemöller.
Looking at the world around her, Carla says there is cause for concern. “I am continually surprised by how willing we are as consumers to sacrifice our right to privacy for the convenience of personalized ads and news feeds.”
Carla is currently majoring in Theology and minoring in Biology and Chemistry. After graduation, she hopes to enroll in MD/Ph.D. program and become a physician-scientist.
Congratulations again to this year’s winners, your essays were truly impressive!
ExpressVPN would also like to thank all the other applicants who took the time to think critically about privacy, internet security, and the future of technology.
There will be new essays topics next year, so don’t hesitate to apply!