American takes Montreal privacy post

It used to be only celebrities who worried about protecting their privacy. But oh, how things have changed.

Spearheaded by the Internet, today’s technology has democratized the unsettling sensation that someone is watching your every move. Now every Tom, Dick and Mary can feel like a scrutinized Hollywood star whose every action is being tracked by the Internet paparazzi.

While millions take this invasion of privacy as a bitter pill to be swallowed for the price of technological advancement, there are the likes of Alex Fowler who fight for the rights of the apathetic.

Fowler recently joined Montreal-based Zero Knowledge, the makers of privacy protection software, as its senior director of policy and advocacy. The company’s Freedom software is designed to allow users to surf the Internet in full anonymity while retaining control of their own identity.

Originally educated in bio-ethics, Fowler joined the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington D.C. almost a decade ago. The association is concerned with issues dealing with scientific freedom. But while he was at AAAS, his interest shifted from genetics to information technology.

Fowler would be working on briefings for Congress’s genetic policies one week and the next week updating congressional staff on encryption. While the biologists and geneticists were in suits and ties and deferred to completely on policy matters, the IT guys were stereotypical hacker types, with black T-shirts and long hair, showing their defiance in the face of government bureaucracy, Fowler said.

“From my perspective, I really identified much more with the straight-forwardness of the computer industry,” he said. “I really found that I had much more affinity for the inner workings of network architectures and computers than I did for the human body.” So Fowler went back to school to get his masters in information technology policy at George Washington University in Washington.

“I seriously considered going to law school and even applied to a bunch of different schools, but as I got closer to actually having to make a decision…I didn’t feel like it opened as many doors as a masters would,” he said.

After seven years at AAAS he joined the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 1998. Smaller than AAAS, EFF is an influential non-profit organization that works on a cross-section of civil liberty issues, Fowler said. He referred to it as a think-tank with teeth which did research to support issues as they went to court.

“Whether it was to defend the rights of hackers who had broken the security on DVDs or whether it was demonstrating how insecure 56 bit encryption was, [EFF was involved],” he explained.

bringing people together

Ultimately, Fowler sees himself as a synthesizer, someone who sees patterns in disparate areas and gets the necessary groups together to solve issues.

Patrick Ball, the deputy director of AAAS’s science and human rights program, worked with Fowler on the AAAS encryption policy and agrees that part of his strength lies in his ability to synthesize information.

“Alex really helped us frame the issue…I was in charge of the human rights side and Alex was in charge of the science side,” he said. “Technical people tend to be really bad at policy, they really don’t get it because policy is not run along technical grounds,” he explained.

At the root of the problem is East Coast code vs. West Coast code. The expression is courtesy of an American law professor, who coined the term to explain the fundamental differences in understanding between the logic used in law and policy (east coast) and the logic required to create computer code (west coast).

“Alex really understands that, Alex is a player at the junction between East Coast code and West Coast code…he can bring them together in really fruitful ways,” Ball explained. “Alex has exactly the right vocabulary, the right language to help us make that translation. He provides a pass through between incompatible protocols,” Ball added, shifting into west coast vernacular.

keeping tabs on america

For Zero Knowledge, getting one of these translators was important for the company’s success.

“Alex is going to help us keep tabs on what is going on…how our products can fit with the policy and legal requirements as they arise [in the U.S.],” said Stephanie Perrin, chief privacy officer at Zero Knowledge. “Frankly, there is not a lot of expertise on privacy out there, contrary to what you might think from reading the press. So if you want people with expertise in privacy you have got to go and look in governments and in NGOs (non-governmental organizations),” she explained.

Fowler sees great risk if our Internet habits and privacy are not protected.

“I think that we have a much greater threat to public discourse, to democracy in the sense that we are all being fed our own ideas right back at us…you are not confronted by the opposing viewpoints to your ideas,” he explained.

If enough information is gathered on an individual there is the fear “that somebody is going to predetermine what my interests are and then personalize everything that I see and hear based on this idea of who they think I am and what I am interested in.”

Fowler is essentially the start of Zero Knowledge’s foray into the United States. He will be based in San Jose, Calif.