The Electronic Frontier Alliance is made up of more than seventy groups of concerned community members, often including workers in the tech industry who see issues of the industry from the inside. One of the Alliance’s most active members is PDX Privacy, a Portland-based privacy group whose membership advocates for local and state privacy protections, and overlaps with Portland’s Techno-Activism 3rd Mondays, a year-round campaign of workshops, speakers, and panels.
Here, the EFF Organizing Team talks to three members of PDX Privacy about how they started, and what they’ve learned fighting for privacy through both advocacy and popular education.
What is PDX privacy?
Chris: We’re a group of local residents who really care about privacy. We're trying to educate the community to advocate for privacy centric policies and anti-surveillance policies.
AJ: We're all volunteers, and, in addition to advocating for public policy and changes in our community, a big part of what we do is also to educate people in our community about some of the local issues related to privacy, how people are surveilling us, why privacy is important. And, some specific things going on in our community that they can advocate for.
How did PDX privacy start?
Chris: It started back in 2017. At that point it was me with a Twitter account. When the 2016 election happened, it meant that privacy was now on the shelf for a while. I didn't want that to happen. So, I wanted to keep working on the community control over police surveillance objective. I didn't really know how to go about that at first but I just started looking for people who also cared about it, and then there were a few, and then we got Michael and AJ in there.
AJ: I joined the group in the Summer of 2018. I think I just found it on kind of a local aggregator for tech related events, but I came to a meeting of the TA3M that Chris hosted and found out about this PDX Privacy group, and wanted to help out.
Michael: Around late 2017, I started to become really passionate about these privacy-related issues, and I happened to find a TA3M meetup. It's just the privacy happy hour that I met Chris at and we got to talking about privacy.
Before PDX privacy, what made privacy an issue that was important to you?
Chris: TA3M is the gateway drug. I think that I've always cared about privacy and just finding that balance of what you share and what you don't. Things that I've shared that then came back to bite me. But then, there was Snowden. I’m an electrical engineer by trade. I was aware of a lot of the technologies, I just didn't realize the extent to which they were being used against the general population. I think that made me want to protect my data more. I thought unless I’m actually committing some crime I don't really think that I should have my every moment monitored and every single thing I say or do being recorded.
Michael: My concerns centered around overreach by government and corporations and the chilling effect that that can have on free speech when you're under mass surveillance. I think our most important work with PDX Privacy is bringing awareness to that and helping pump the brakes on some of those technologies until we can figure out a way that protects privacy and freedom of speech.
AJ: I spent a number of years in my career working in enterprise software in the data and analytics industry. So not the companies that are collecting our personal data, but the companies that build the software and figure out what to do with that data once it's collected. They also analyze all kinds of benign data, but I got to know perhaps a little too well what the internet knows about us. And it really freaked me out. And, you know, for a while I was concerned about it, but it felt kind of helpless like there was nothing that I could really do to stop it, and that nobody really cared about these issues. A real turning point was when the Cambridge Analytica story broke. It wasn't a very surprising story, but what I noticed in that story was that people seem to care in a way that I haven't seen them care about other privacy issues before. That really made me feel like there was an interest to do something about it. So that meant, number one, I quit my full time job and I founded a privacy focused startup. And then I also found TA3M and PDX privacy and got involved in local advocacy, to see how we can better educate people on what data is being collected and get them to push their legislators to take appropriate action.
What have been barriers that prevent people from becoming more engaged?
Chris: For me the biggest challenge is just figuring out how things work. Figuring out all the levels of government and who has power and how we can affect change. I think people feel overwhelmed and like there's nothing they can do about it. Our hope is to try to show people ways that we can change things, whether it's just a setting on your phone or if it's changing some kind of policy locally or nationally.
Michael: One of the hardest things is making privacy concerns really concrete. It can be abstract.
You mentioned the difficulty in explaining the concepts and making them accessible. Have you found ways that have been more effective than others?
AJ: I presented at TA3M for an hour on why privacy matters. The more you say that, the more you refine it. It helps to take something people are familiar with, and do an analogy, and I think one of the great ones is about encryption where you have the the envelope example where you have the address on the envelope but you don't know what's inside the envelope, versus the postcard where it's totally unencrypted. One of the things that resonates is that the data that's being collected about them is so detailed and granular that even though it's anonymous, it's not really anonymous because it's so detailed that it can be used to say it's specifically you.
What are some of the surprises? What have you learned now that you're doing more advocacy?
Chris: Here in Portland, there's kind of a team effort in passing laws. Some city councilors or state senators have things that they want to accomplish and they're sometimes happy to have groups like ours supporting their efforts. In some cases, we have to educate them on how things work, but in other cases they're already on board, and they're happy that we're on the same page. So there’s been more of a collaborative effort than I had anticipated.
AJ: An interesting discovery for me is that there's so many issues that aren't necessarily privacy-centric, but in so many other issues, like police reform, privacy is a component. So, as opposed to our own group flying solo, realizing that privacy is an important component but not the only component of a lot of these larger issues and really seeing where there's momentum and an interest. Right now there's a lot for police. And, we know that a lot of these privacy issues most harmfully impact the most vulnerable communities.
Michael: We’ve seen that there is a lot of strength in the community, and a really strong community that comes together to support itself. We certainly have our own advocacy issues that we focus on, but getting involved in the community more broadly and strengthening those relationships is essential. Then when you are going to those other groups and saying ‘we would like some support for this initiative,’ you already have those relationships, it's easier to lean on them.
What do you see on the horizon for PDX privacy?
Chris: We're excited about some recent privacy progress and hope to build on that. Last year, Portland enacted two facial recognition bans, one of which was the first, and I believe is still the only, ban of facial recognition use by private entities. And Verizon had plans to build a drone-testing facility in North Portland. Because of our concerns about surveillance, we joined some other local groups working to set that land aside for community use instead, and Verizon canceled their plans. Portland is currently working on a surveillance ordinance for the city, and we hope to help make the proposed legislation as strong as possible so the public can have input into how and whether they're surveilled and also have transparency about use of surveillance systems. Additionally, we want to engage more with other local organizations to build relationships and work with them. As we grow, we also plan to expand to other parts of the metro area—Washington and Clackamas counties and the cities within them.
AJ: That's a good summary, I think, in addition to the regulatory path, a big priority for us as well is on education about privacy. COVID has made some of those community events more challenging, and we are doing them remotely. Just having a large population of people who care about privacy and are knowledgeable about the issues. It helps them make decisions which emphasize privacy, but it also helps shift public policy, because they vote on the issues they care about and if legislators see that their communities care about privacy, they have an incentive to better address those needs. So I think that's a big priority for us as well. In addition to helping shape public policy.