We're in the Transparency Business: Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award Acceptance Remarks

By Beth Givens
EFF Pioneer Award
Computers, Freedom and Privacy Conference
San Francisco CA


I thank you - the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the judges. It is truly an honor to receive a Pioneer Award and to join the other Pioneers whom I've admired and revered for years. (www.eff.org/awards/pioneer.html )

I want to say a few words of thanks - and then briefly describe our work in terms of the larger issue of "transparency." But first - my thanks.

Keeping our doors open these past 10 years has been a roller coaster experience. And I'm sure many of you who work in consumer nonprofits can relate. We have been fortunate to obtain funding support from a variety of sources.

At the very beginning in 1992 we were funded by a groundbreaking program administered by the state of California, the Telecommunications Education Trust. Over the years we've also received support from lawsuit settlement funds like the Metromail cy pres fund that is keeping our doors open today, for example - and from foundations that support privacy (and there are not nearly enough of them), and from generous individuals. These supporters are listed on our website, www.privacyrights.org.

I would be remiss if I did not thank those in San Diego, where we are located, for keeping the roof over our head and providing the daily glue that keeps body and soul together. I'm talking about our partner organization, the Utility Consumers' Action Network, its director Michael Shames, and my wonderful staff of two, Tena Friery and Jodi Beebe.

And now just a few words about our work.

We are in the transparency business, albeit from the opposite end of the spectrum that transparency should be operating. We receive telephone calls and email messages from individuals who have experienced privacy abuses and who have questions about how to safeguard their privacy. I call this "sampling the marketplace."

I've become convinced over the years that this type of work is vital - and that there needs to be a lot more such "listening" done.

One of the main problems facing individuals in the U.S. is that the facts behind their privacy violations are often invisible. Many, if not most, individuals do not know how their personal information was obtained by the entity that violated their privacy.

Identity theft is one example, albeit a big one. Back in 1993 when we first started receiving calls from identity theft victims, my first reaction was disbelief. "What do you mean, someone was able to get a dozen credit cards in your name, and they didn't even steal your wallet?"

But as the calls increased, we were able to piece together how the crime was occurring and we developed a guide on how victims can regain their financial health.

We could not do that kind of work if we didn't have direct access to the thousands of individuals who have contacted us over the years.

I call this our "societal feedback function." We invite and collect individuals' stories. And we analyze the types of complaints and questions that come our way, and then inform lawmakers, government regulators, other consumer advocates, as well as industry representatives.

In this way, public policy debates can be informed with the experiences of real people who are experiencing the marketplace as hostile to their privacy.

I am not saying all this to toot our own horn - rather, to describe a vital function that there needs to be much more of.

There is another way to shine the light on the facts underlying privacy abuses. And that's through litigation and the process of discovery. I attended a conference last weekend put on by Robert Ellis Smith's Privacy Journal. I was able to hear the presentation of the attorney representing the family of Amy Boyer, David Gottesman of New Hampshire.

Amy Boyer was the young woman who was murdered by a stalker who had obtained information about her whereabouts from the online information broker Docusearch. Without Gottesman's dogged work, most of it self-funded, we would not know about the inner workings of this information broker.

It's really a shame that we here in the U.S. have to rely on the hit and miss efforts of my program, and of the efforts of attorneys engaged in such lawsuits - and that transparency is not codified in law. But unfortunately, we do not have the function of transparency built into national law, with a few exceptions.

The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse is a small program. More work like ours needs to be done, whether by us or other entities who listen to and assist victims of privacy abuses.

We are intent on growing, and this - our tenth year - is a critical one for us.

In closing, I want to thank you, EFF, once again. We all make our unique contributions. We all work hard in different ways, and we work in difficult situations. It is the work that I've been able to do with many of you, whether directly or indirectly, that keeps me and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse going. It's very gratifying.

Thank you all very much.