I was recently invited to be a visiting fellow at Bits of Freedom in Amsterdam. This was a great opportunity to gain insight into the European privacy debate, not to mention escape the DC summer and visit an amazing city full of bicycles.
Bits of Freedom is a digital rights organization, not unlike the EFF in the United States. They are a mix of lawyers, activists, and tech folk who work at the intersection of technology and human rights. BoF focuses on issues such as transparency, active hacking, net neutrality, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. The staff employ a variety of tools to meet their goals including FOIA, government transparency reports, advocacy campaigns, and direct lobbying to, “influence legislation and self-regulation” both in the Netherlands and across the EU.
My visit focused on learning from the experts here as well as providing some of my own perspective. I learned about BoF’s history and their current agenda items and debates. Their current slate of issues is guided by the European philosophy of privacy and security as a human right, which is a refreshing change to how we approach things in the States. It’s an empowering context for privacy work. Their team helped me understand how “sausages are made” in the European Commission and, more specifically, how privacy issues are debated in the Netherlands. It was particularly interesting to discuss the NSA’s recent revelations from a European perspective and how these programs further reduce trust in the U.S. ecosystem (which is significant because much of their businesses rely on the U.S.). I found that we share a general philosophy that the government’s technological security tools need to be carefully considered because often they have non-obvious implications for average citizens. Additionally, some things that would be deemed ‘sensitive’ in the US are legal in Amsterdam, such as prostituion and marijuana which raises interesting privacy concerns as the Dutch begin exploring technologies such as retail smartphone tracking (near a ‘red light’ district perhaps?).
Their team asked me to discuss some of my work as well. I described my approach of trying to demystify technology by working with journalists and policymakers to help them understand the precise technical details of these issues. I also discussed how to use ‘data journalism’ and visualizations to help inform the public debate. For example, portraying recent events (such as the Tor/FBI hacking or the recent XKeyscore revelations) in a broader context helps answer the question “what’s the harm?” Presenting the public with a story about the problem, not just explaining the symptoms, is ultimately a more sustainable way to effect change.
It was a great chance to collaborate and get a fresh perspective. I also had an amazing introduction to the tradition of “Dutch Lunch,” where the team eats lunch together every day. This was my favorite time of the day as it provided a great chance to chat with folks about their work in a more casual setting.
Additionally, my visit fortuitously coincided with a pretty great hacking conferences called Observe, Hack, Make. (OHM) 2013. OHM follows in the tradition of CCC, and other “hacker camps,” which describe their target audience as, “free-thinkers, philosophers, activists, geeks, scientists, artists, creative minds and a whole bunch of people interested in lots of interesting stuff.” Basically a bunch of nerds, artists, and activists hacking on cool stuff.
All in all this was a wonderful experience. I developed a deeper understanding on the European perspective on privacy and security as a human right, and I seem to have picked up a severe Club Mate addiction (which is hard to get in the U.S. except from here–so sponsorships welcome!). I definitely recommend keeping an eye on what Bits of Freedom is up to in the coming months including the announcement of a new director. And I’m eager to see the winners of their famous Big Brother Awards, given in honor of the “grossest privacy violators of the year.” (My prediction: NSA sweep!)