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CFP 2011: Shine On, You Crazy Senator!

The Thursday presentations at the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy 2011 conference were anchored by a keynote speech by Senator Pat Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont. This is the second time I’ve heard Leahy speak in three weeks, the first time being at a fancy lunch sponsored by

Leahy, by many accounts, is a smart cookie and a strong advocate for privacy rights. He received a glowing affirmation onstage from Marc Rotenberg, Executive Director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center; I’ve known Marc for nearly twenty years, and consider him to be an extremely effective organizer and thoughtful commentator on privacy and Internet issues, so when Marc says something good about someone, I’m inclined to think pretty highly of that person.

And this is why both of Leahy’s speeches were so damn disappointing. Yes, he finally included a few tidbits of useful information, which I’ll get to shortly, but nearly all of it was political pablum: The issues raised at CFP are extremely important. We’re all to be commended for our interest and our work. He needs our help to get his legislation passed.

In Washington, this isn’t just preaching to the choir, this is saying, “Gosh darn it, your robes are immaculate and you all sound terrific.”

CFP is open attendance, and is one of the few places where you can find an audience where not everyone is singing from the same hymnal. There are debates here about the nature of privacy, the tension between commercial profit-making activities and the public good, and incursions against human rights by those who say it’s for the defense of the populace. Speakers and attendees are on both sides of each of these issues; what we share in common, by and large, is a deep understanding of the technical and social forces at work, and a commitment to our particular sides of the fence.

So why did Leahy stand up and give such a weak presentation? It would have been appropriate on CSPAN or Rachel Maddow, where he’s not addressing an expert community. But here, I don’t want to hear that we’re important and he needs our help; I want to hear his expert insights on the legislative process, the reason why past efforts have failed, and the specific methods by which people can get involved on one side or the other of an issue. If he needs our help, I want to hear how.

It’s a missed opportunity, but it’s also more than that — there was no expectation from the audience that a sitting senator would address us about his work and expertise, even though that’s the model used by literally every other speaker at this conference. We would be surprised to be included in the debate at his level; he won’t say anything that could be turned into a sound bite to be used against him. The U.S. Senate, everyone seems to be agreed, is a giant black box — money and votes pour in, a secret alchemical process takes place (known only to lobbyists carrying six-figure paychecks), and the result is U.S. law.

On the same day that a strong progressive voice resigned because he sent inadvisable pictures of himself on Twitter, this is further demonstration that we’re not really engaging in self-government so much as performance art.

All of that said: Leahy spoke of his efforts to pass an update to the Electronic Communications and Privacy Act, which was last passed in 1986. Times have changed. Key points in the new ECPA include the need to get search warrants before government agencies can access sensitive computer data, such as location tracking or cloud storage; such information is currently unprotected and can be handed over based on the decisions of the host companies. He is also working on setting a federal standard for notifications in the event of a security breach at a private company, so people who have had their data stolen will be told about it; again, this is currently done on an ad-hoc basis by the companies in question.

This is the fourth time Leahy has introduced the latter legislation, and he said he hopes that the fourth time is the charm. It seems to me that had he spent more time discussing the meat and potatoes of his two bills, the obstacles he’s facing, and the specific initiatives he’d like to see from the people in the audience — and more importantly, the much larger group of you reading what was said here — then perhaps he wouldn’t have to rely on hope. It should be his job to give us the specifics, so that I can relay them to you, and so you can then go on to promote the legislation you agree with, or oppose the laws you think are dangerous.

But that’s all in the black box. And perhaps I’m asking too much of the man. He’s just a senator, and you and I are merely citizens.

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