Since 1992, EFF’s annual Pioneer Awards celebration has honored those who expanded freedom and innovation on what was dubbed the electronic frontier—a bleeding edge of technology intersecting with the rights of users. Today we understand better than ever that digital privacy and free expression are fundamental elements of democracy and human rights around the world.

This year we recognized the work of four leaders in this space: trailblazing digital rights activist Malkia Cyril, tireless international data protection activist Max Schrems, the groundbreaking encryption researchers who authored “Keys Under Doormats," and champions of California’s CalECPA privacy law Senators Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and Joel Anderson (R-Alpine).

Julia Angwin kicks off the night. Photo by Alex Schoenfeldt.

Award-winning investigative journalist Angwin opened the event with a keynote speech tracing the rise of online tracking and surveillance technologies. Angwin described her career in tech journalism from an early Wall Street Journal article that was “literally about cookies” to her latest work at ProPublica focusing on the effect of racially biased computer programs used by courts to predict who will be a future criminal. The journalist affirmed her commitment to reframe the conversation about privacy rights into a conversation about human rights.

Lee Tien, EFF Senior Staff Attorney and Adams Chair for Internet Rights, presented the first awards of the evening to California Senators Mark Leno and Joel Anderson. The pair introduced CalECPA—the California Electronic Communications Privacy Act—a landmark law that safeguards privacy and free speech rights. It gave California the strongest digital privacy law in the nation and helps prevent abuses before they happen.

CALECPA champs Senators Mark Leno and Joel Anderson. Photo by Alex Schoenfeldt.

San Francisco Democratic Senator Leno quipped that he and fellow winner Republican Senator Joel Anderson were a legislative “odd couple” yet they accomplished something valuable. “San Diego is as far right as San Francisco is far left,” said Leno. “When we get together people notice and pay attention.” Privacy, he says, is a “rare non-partisan issue in Sacramento,” but the fight to get stronger digital privacy protections for Californians and get the California Electronic Communications Privacy Act passed took years. “We won across the board. We are a formidable team,” Leno said.

Senator Anderson added that while he has opposed bills of Leno’s, he was happy to work with his Democratic colleague to get CalECPA passed. He hoped this year’s award wouldn’t be his last: “I still have 2 more years to get more of my own.”

EFF International Director Danny O’Brien presented the next award to Max Schrems. O’Brien pointed out that Schrems was often described in media reports “with a slight tone of dismissal” as an “Austrian law student. How could he possibly believe he was right” in challenging Facebook and the mighty tech industry? Schrems had the audacity to ask companies, “What are you doing to comply with EU data protection law?” Today Schrems can be rightly described in the media as a “noted jurist and successful litigant,” O’Brien said.

Data protection activist Max Schrems. Photo by Alex Schoenfeldt.

Schrems said the Pioneer Award was “really meaningful” to him “coming from EFF.” “We are all interconnected,” said Schrems, and “we can also use the legal system to affect change.” He remembered reports of his case in Europe noting that he was not backed by a sophisticated legal team and had little chance of prevailing. The rest is history.

EFF Legal Director Corynne McSherry presented the next Pioneer Award to Malkia Cyril. McSherry described first meeting Cyril, founder and executive director of the Center for Media Justice, at a rally organized at San Francisco City Hall “in the thick of the fight for net neutrality.” She described how Cyril continued a moving campaign joining communities and “explaining how the fight for net neutrality relates to the fight for racial and economic justice, and vice versa.” McSherry praised Cyril’s voice on varied issues including challenging surveillance and advocating for prisoners’ rights, and for being “equally dedicated to helping others speak.”

Malkia Cyril: “It’s not time to go slow—there are times for that, but that’s not this time.” Photo by Alex Schoenfeldt.

When Cyril got off a plane after a recent vacation, their phone lit up with the latest reports about young black men shot by police. “That’s what my life is like, who else has gotten killed today,” Cyril said. They went on to describe the passion to “dismantle the structure that views my blackness as a crime” and spoke of people of color being “legally enslaved through” gang databases and said high-tech policing, including so-called predictive policing systems which “succeed in only one thing: systematic discrimination against communities of color. That’s wrong. It’s up to us to make that change.” Cyril called for “dismantling these programs” and “abolishing the surveillance state.”

Cindy Cohn, EFF Executive Director, presented the final award of the evening to the authors of the 2015 paper “Keys Under Doormats: Mandating Insecurity by Requiring Government Access to All Data And Communications.”

Cohn remarked that the oft-referenced report helped frame the second round of the so-called Crypto Wars. “The report clearly and cleanly lays out what’s at stake for all of us in the FBI’s push for limits on encryption, bridging from the technical problems in a world where forward secrecy and authenticated encryption are increasingly needed to protect us, to the procedural ones in our international, interconnected world where countries with horrible human rights records and local sheriffs will demand the same access as the FBI. “

Susan Landau on behalf of "Keys Under Doormats" authors. Photo by Alex Schoenfeldt.

Susan Landau spoke on behalf of the 15 co-awardees:

  • Harold Abelson, of MIT
  • Ross Anderson, University of Cambridge
  • Steven M. Bellovin, Columbia University
  • Josh Benaloh, Microsoft Research
  • Matt Blaze, University of Pennsylvania
  • Whitfield Diffie, who in 1975 helped discover the concept of public-key cryptography
  • John Gilmore, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation,
  • Matthew Green, Johns Hopkins University
  • Peter G. Neumann of SRI International
  • Susan Landau, Worcester Polytechnic Institute
  • Ronald L. Rivest, MIT
  • Jeffrey I. Schiller, Internet Engineering Steering Group Area Director for Security from 1994 to 2003
  • Bruce Schneier, EFF Board and fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Harvard University,
  • Michael A. Specter, Ph.D. candidate at MIT
  • Daniel J. Weitzner, of MIT and United States Deputy Chief Technology Officer in the White House (2011-2012)

Landau recalled the group's 1997 report responding to the Clipper Chip proposal and why a review of recent law enforcement efforts at exceptional access to private communications was necessary. The team of experts concluded, Landau said at the event, that the kinds of access the FBI demanded would break authenticated encryption and could also break forward secrecy (which prevents a key exposure from enabling the decryption of all previously encrypted materials). The government’s requests would compromise “fundamental security protections.”

Landau said that beginning work on the encryption debate 25 years ago “shaped the rest of my life for good.” She recalled the morning that the Snowden documents were leaked. She received an email from Julia Angwin and fielded questions all day from reporters, too busy to change from her pajamas. Technical expertise and research had become crucial in the debate about government spying.

“EFF realized that real people who were living real lives,” cared about freedom and liberty, and recognized that the fight about encryption is, “at its core” about freedom and liberty.

Landau had a parting message for EFF: “Just keep doing the fabulous work you’re doing.”

The 2016 Pioneer Award winners with EFF Executive Director Cindy Cohn. Photo by Alex Schoenfeldt.

The Pioneer Awards provide an opportunity to look back at who is ensuring that the rights to privacy and free expression can stay in harmony with our changing methods of interaction and communication. We thank every EFF member and supporter for being a part of this growing movement. With each passing year, it becomes more evident that our collective work is fundamental to protecting basic freedoms and we are not yet done.

Special thanks to Airbnb, Dropbox, O'Reilly Media, No Starch Press, Adobe, and Ron Reed for supporting EFF and the 2016 Pioneer Awards ceremony.