Watching those watching us

Greg Nash

Nuala O’Connor has been on both sides in the debate over online privacy. Now the head of a prominent organization trying to rein in government surveillance, O’Connor used to work on privacy issues from the inside at the Department of Homeland 

Security (DHS) and corporate giants like Amazon and GE.

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That background means that the new president of the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) is the right woman to tackle the tough issue of protecting people’s data, she said.

“I am both sympathetic and skeptical at the same time, because I’ve been there and I’ve done that and I know, in a good and a bad way, what companies and governments are capable of doing,” she said.

“But I also am profoundly respectful of those two constituencies, and I believe that I’m the right person to have the conversation about how do we do these things better.”

New technology and the ability to analyze massive amounts of information can help save lives, minimize traffic, reduce pollution and help the human race in a whole host of other ways.

But that much information can also make it easier for government agents or corporate executives to snoop on people, either out of security concerns or to target advertisements.

O’Connor is only the third president of the CDT in its 20-year history. And though in her second month on the job, her sun-filled office overlooking Farragut Square in downtown Washington is already packed with pictures of her children and dogs, and posters from the likes of Conan O’Brien to an anti-surveillance coalition.

There’s also a purple lightsaber toy, a gift from the “Women’s High Heels and Lightsabers Club.” She co-founded the club with Annie Antón, head of the interactive computing school at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

“She sent me that when I got this job and then another friend who got a big job, we sent her one,” O’Connor told The Hill. “And so all around town, there’s a whole cult of women who like their high heels and their lightsabers.”

On Twitter, O’Connor goes by the handle @privacymama, and she describes herself as “Mom, tech diva, and lover of dogs and really good shoes.” 

One of her first orders of business at the CDT was to host a Friday family happy hour.

“There’s nothing more humanizing than seeing people with their children, right?” she said. “It gives you a totally different perspective on who they are.”

On the “vanity wall” in her office are pictures with former Department of Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Jimmy Stewart, the actor, who donated a scholarship that she was awarded in college at Princeton.

“Do I have range or what?” she said.

O’Connor, who called Ridge “a very, very close friend of mine today,” was the first ever chief privacy officer at the Department of Homeland Security.

At the DHS, her job was “not that different in terms of where I sit and how I see the world” from her current post, she explained.

The privacy office had an “ombudsman-like quality.” Criticizing the leadership while still supporting the overall mission was a core part of the job. 

“In fact, I’m probably most proud of some of the times that we were most critical of the agency I was working for,” she said. “But again, I also tried to do it with respect and with a real genuine kindness for what the mission of the organization was, but always challenging it to do better.”

These days, groups like the CDT, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have been focused on surveillance programs at the National Security Agency (NSA).

President Obama and leaders in the intelligence community maintain that the controversial programs have been critical in protecting the country from terrorists. Leaks about details of the programs have been overblown, the NSA’s defenders say, and have actually hurt the country by making it easier for terrorists to avoid detection.

O’Connor said she recognizes that some type of anti-terror programs are necessary, but they need to be “much more targeted and limited” and start from the premise of “my data, my self.”

“The phrase I keep saying is the default setting for the technology in our daily lives cannot be that all of the data ends up in the hands of the government. It simply cannot be,” she said.

Since leaving the DHS in 2005, O’Connor worked in consumer privacy at GE and as the head of compliance and customer trust at Amazon. She previously spent time at the Commerce Department and the online ad company DoubleClick.

Tech companies routinely collect data about users’ searches and habits to better predict what they might want in the future, which can make it easier to shop, find friends online and discover new things. The problem, O’Connor said, is when companies are collecting people’s information without their knowledge.

Her job at the CDT, as she sees it, is to serve as a bridge between companies, governments and advocacy groups.

The organization wants to be “responsible conveners” for bringing all sides together, she said.

“I know this since I’ve lived it at Amazon and other places, that there’s a real kind of distrust of Washington in Silicon Valley and I think that’s a conversation that we can hopefully help be a bridge in and create some responsible and open some lines of communication,” she said.

That includes an effort to speak to foreign governments and the heart of the tech sector. In addition to the Washington office, the CDT also has outposts in Brussels; Belgium, where the European Parliament is based; and San Francisco. Spending a few days at those other offices was one of her first actions on the job.

Expanding overseas growth is one of her main priorities for her first year in office, alongside fighting overly intrusive surveillance and tackling “technology in daily life,” the use of data and connected devices around the home and office.

The last issue hits close to home for the 45-year-old single mother of three young children.

Devices like “smart” refrigerators that remind people when groceries are running low and connected cars that help avoid accidents can make living easier, but they can also be a way for government and corporations to learn the smallest details of people’s lives.

“There’s good and there’s bad, and I think we need to be rational and not alarmist about both of those extremes,” she said, “but really have a conversation about what’s reasonable, what’s rational, what’s the relationship to the individual and what does the individual know.”