Pioneer Awards Ceremony 2021 Recap: Privacy Defenders Unite – EFF

On September 16, EFF held the 30th Annual Pioneer Award Ceremony, a yearly celebration of our digital heroes. The Barlows this year went to a selection of individuals who have worked to protect privacy in unique, impressive, and successful ways, from the streets of Harlem and Boston to Mumbai. If you missed the awards, you can watch it online. You can also read the full transcript.

EFF’s Executive Director, Cindy Cohn, kicked off the event by pointing out that the world may be changing shape–this is our second online Pioneer Award Ceremony, after all–but EFF was built for change, and we’ve had significant successes over the past year: our fight to keep dangerous scanning software off Apple devices; passing one of the largest state investments in public fiber broadband in U.S. history in California; developing guides to help observe visible and invisible surveillance at protests; our pressure on Amazon Ring, which finally added a variety of protections as well as visibility into its partnerships with police; and of course, our win at the Supreme Court, which overturned an overbroad interpretation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. 

It was also a challenging year, as we lost two luminaries who made important and influential impressions on the digital rights landscape. Cindy gave a touching tribute to Sherwin Siy, who passed away in July. Sherwin was “a brilliant advocate and strategist dedicated to protecting and preserving the web as a place for creativity and innovation and sharing.” We also lost Dan Kaminsky, who “showed work and security are linked and it is our responsibility to respect users in the tools we built.” Sherwin and Dan remind us that “we define technology and that we are not helpless. We help each other. Each one of us has the power to grow, nurture and inspire others in our own ways.” 

Cindy sharing opening remarks

Cindy then introduced keynote speakers, Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders. The two are authors, podcasters, and longtime friends of EFF (Annalee was even a Policy Analyst at EFF some years ago). As Cindy put it, EFF figured out long before everyone else how amazing they are. 

“We’re writers who think a lot about the future…and Adrian Brenee Brown said that activism is science fiction, which means that EFF is, by its nature, a very science-fictional organization,” said Charlie Jane. The two decided to consider where EFF might be many, many years into the future. Charlie Jane imagined that in the 2040’s, the government and large for-profit identities would come up with a system of mandatory identity requirements. EFF would be out there, defending anonymity and pseudonymity and free expression, particularly for hackers and trans people. EFF will help stick a spoke in the wheel of the dystopian, nightmare policies, by defending the heroism of computer security professionals that get around the (not particularly hard-to-imagine) “mandatory identity continuity system.” “There will be so much good case law!” both exclaimed.

But what about further into the future? Annalee went that far, imagining EFF in a thousand years–when civilizations will have come and gone, but everyone will still be completely obsessed with licensing content. That far into the future, though, “the content you’ll be licensing will be your own memories.” Amazon Web Services, which is an enormous cloud hosting provider for websites and other services, is now AMP, Amazon Memory Palace: “backup storage for your meatbrain.” But people who can’t afford the hosting costs can use the service—by licensing their minds. 

Thankfully, “EFF will be there to defend the tinkerers and academics who figure out how to send AMP implant memories to their own, open source devices.” And three cheers again for good case law–“The 900th circuit on the moon Titan issues a decision that echoes around the solar system: people have a right to do what they want with their own memories on devices that they have purchased.” While we hope this isn’t the inevitable future, we are glad that Charlie Jane and Annalee imagine EFF continuing the fight for technological freedom in that world, far far away. But even today, said Annalee, EFF makes imagining a better future possible: “EFF isn’t just kicking ass in the court, and in the streets–they’re allowing us to imagine a future where resistance is always possible.” 

Keynote speakers Annalee and Charlie Jane

After the keynote, EFF Legislative Activist Hayley Tsukayama introduced our first winner. Kade Crockford, who directs the Technology for Liberty Project at the ACLU of Massachusetts, is “notable not only for their work, but also because of their deep knowledge, quick wit, and incisive ability to get to the heart of any matter.” Kade’s work focuses on ensuring that technology strengthens rights to free speech and expression, and is not used to impede our civil liberties, especially privacy rights. In particular, Kade has recently won some of the most successful battles to stop government use of face surveillance. 

Kade Crockford accepting award

In less than two years, their work on the “Press Pause on Face Surveillance” campaign won seven municipal bans on government use of face surveillance in Massachusetts. The campaign included an op-ed signed by the Boston Celtics, which helped push the governor of the state to sign a bill to reign in face recognition. After similar pressure, Maine passed an even stronger law. The bold “Press Pause on Face Surveillance” campaign was created along with the ACLU of Northern California, Kade said, and thanked the many advocates there, as well as their fellow advocates at ACLU of Massachusetts. Along with their many colleagues, Kade thanked one of last year’s winners, Joy Buolamwini, whose research helped set the groundwork for the campaign. 

Kade gave two pieces of advice that resonated with the activist audience and other winners: “Small plans don’t move people’s hearts–we could’ve aimed lower, but doing so would not have led to the same kind of success that we’ve seen. Too often, we negotiate with ourselves before bringing our demands to the table. No longer.” And the second, a reminder of our strength as advocates: “technology, while powerful, does not control us. Technological determinism is not inevitable…in order to address the most pressing issues at the intersection of technology and civil liberties….we must build political power, and then we must flex it without apology.” We could not agree more. 

In his introduction to the next winner, EFF Senior Staff Attorney and Adams Chair for Internet Rights Lee Tien highlighted that she is not a lawyer, and not a technologist–but that has not stopped her from doing incredible work. “Pam [Dixon] has to do everything–it’s mind boggling to me how much she’s been able to accomplish.” But indeed she has done an incredible amount: as an author and researcher, Pam Dixon has been a champion of privacy for more than two decades. She has been a pioneer in examining, documenting, and analyzing how data is utilized in ways that impact multiple aspects of our lives, from finances and health information to identity. Pam founded the World Privacy Forum in 2003, a leading public interest group researching consumer privacy and data, with a focus on documenting and analyzing how individuals’ data interacts within complex data ecosystems and the consequences of those interactions. 

Pam Dixon accepting award

Pam took the opportunity to share some of the moments that shifted her thinking about privacy. In particular, she’s learned that “when you’re born in the global North, privilege is a blind spot.” The first shift, she explained, happened during a trip to India to research the Aadhar biometric project: “There’s the Pam before this interview and then there’s the Pam after this interview.” During that interview, young girls in India told her “they didn’t have enough money to have privacy.” “That was an arrow that sunk really deep into my heart,” Pam said.

a picture of pam dixon alongside several young women

Pam also showed a slide from an “ID for Africa” webinar, where she first heard a mentor of hers, Dr. Joseph Atick, explain that “identity acts as a key to most data ecosystems”—a succinct, but eye-opening explanation of why privacy must be central to identity systems. Pam also told a lesson she learned during a Roundtable of African Data Protection Authorities: that there are many parts of the world where the law on the books differs from the law on the ground. In those cases—where data protection authorities are working in hostile environments, and are trying their best to persuade their colleagues to do the right thing for privacy, the key is “working with people instead of just against them when you don’t agree with them. We are always going to find people who we disagree with and who disagree with us, but what matters is what you do with that. Are you going to find a place where you can agree or just push each other and harden the boundaries and not make progress?”

Pam mentioned several of her other mentors including Teki Falconer, founder of Africa Digital Rights Hub, and Professor Joel Reidenberg, a mentor on student privacy and other thorny issues in privacy. “The people who have come before us have really done so much for us, and we can’t forget them, and this is my remembering.” 

The final awardee, security researcher Matt Mitchell, was introduced by EFF’s Director of Engineering, Certbot, Alexis Hancock: “A lot of technologists are able to talk about what they know, but Matt talks about and gets people to understand what he knows. That’s a much different skill.” Matt is the founder of CryptoHarlem and a tech fellow for the BUILD program at the Ford Foundation. CryptoHarlem provides workshops on digital surveillance and a space for Black people in Harlem, who are over-policed and heavily surveilled, to learn about digital security, encryption, privacy, cryptography tools, and more. 

Matt Mitchell accepting award

In accepting his award, Matt began by talking about the necessity of a program like CryptoHarlem: “CryptoHarlem represents that much-needed voice and education to those who are tired of technology just happening to our communities, and want to begin to shape technology for our communities.” CryptoHarlem was sparked, Matt said, “due to the feeling of profound loss, the loss of all black folks, after Trayvon Martin’s death.” From the get-go, people were ready for CryptoHarlem: “In our communities, this is a generational issue….for someone to say let’s talk about answers, let’s talk about history, let’s talk about ways you can protect yourself, people were ready for it.”

Matt walked us through Harlem with pictures from the subway and the streets, showing when you enter that part of the city, you’re going to see police, surveillance cameras, Shotspotters, and other pervasive forms of policing: “It’s almost like Harlem or any inner city neighborhood is like the testing ground for surveillance.” His presentation was dedicated to Jelani Henry, a DJ for CryptoHarlem who was arrested and kept in Riker’s prison for over a year without being charged due simply to social media activity. His case was eventually dismissed.

“CryptoHarlem shows up to educate, and to learn from others, focusing on issues that speak to marginalized groups, making guides, one pagers, and simple checklists. There are people who are living in everybody’s cyberpunk nightmare, but nobody’s coming to save them. If we don’t push back for marginalized communities who are being attacked in all directions, it will be too late when it reaches the dominant culture.”  

Cindy closed out the proceedings with a simple summation of our winners of the night: “We have three awardees who have taken on privacy at very different levels and in very different ways, but all standing up for you, and for people around the world.” EFF greatly appreciates the opportunity to honor these digital rights heroes. The highlight of our year is bringing these advocates together across the globe to honor and lift up their important work. Please take a moment to watch the proceedings if you happened to miss them.

Special thanks to our sponsors: No Starch Press; Ridder, Costa & Johnstone; and Ron Reed for supporting EFF and the 2021 Pioneer Award Ceremony.