Advocating privacy

Advocating privacy

On Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenBill Press: Don't forget about Amy Key moments in the 2020 Democratic presidential race so far Al Franken mocks McConnell: 'Like listening to Jeffrey Dahmer complain about the decline of dinner party etiquette' MORE’s first day in office in 2009, Alvaro Bedoya walked up to the newly arrived Minnesota Democrat and handed him a 20-page memo on then-Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.

It was the first assignment for Bedoya, who was in his mid-20s and a full five years ahead of becoming the head of Georgetown Law’s new Center on Privacy and Technology. In just under a year, the think tank has become a respected voice in Washington, as Congress considers revamping privacy laws to match the ongoing revelations about government surveillance and the growing ubiquity of Internet-connected devices.

But at the time, Bedoya just wanted to impress his new boss. He had spent two weeks going full “unabashed legal nerd” on the memo, he told The Hill in a recent interview.

“It was constitutional rights, all these obscure Supreme Court precedents,” he said. “The stuff that I thought a senator in a Supreme Court confirmation hearing should know about.”

Bedoya was, he recalled, “super proud of this memo.”

The senator took the memo and left. Ten minutes later, Bedoya was summoned into Franken’s office.

“He looks at me and he’s like, ‘So I read this,’ and throws the memo aside,” Bedoya said. “And he says, ‘It’s all fine, but I want to talk about net neutrality.’”

Bedoya had never heard the term before.

“No idea,” he said. “Utterly unfamiliar.”

At Franken’s request, he quickly became an expert. It was the start of the rapid ascension for Bedoya that has led him to become a powerful advocate in Washington on consumer digital privacy.

Bedoya spent months in the trenches with Franken, serving as the senator’s top adviser on digital privacy issues, such as smartphone tracking, surveillance, cybersecurity and facial recognition privacy. He pushed side by side with the senator on a bill that would ban stalking apps and was the main, if not only, congressional staffer to attend and regularly speak up during the administration-led multi-stakeholder meetings trying to develop a code of conduct for facial recognition software.

When Bedoya left Franken’s office in 2014, the lawmaker called him “one of the nation’s leading experts on the intersection of privacy, law and technology. And he’s one of the most talented and hard-working lawyers I’ve ever met.”

Bedoya credits his former boss.

“Senator Franken was just so interested in these issues and this dynamic of powerful interests in D.C. affecting the rights of regular people on the Internet,” he said. “Every time he got interested in something, I had to learn about it.”

“And I just absolutely fell in love with it,” Bedoya added.

Sitting in a conference room at Georgetown Law, Bedoya contemplated his quick path from an immigrants rights-devoted law student — he was born in Peru and moved to upstate New York when he was five — to head of a center on privacy and technology.

The two topics can appear worlds apart. But Bedoya, who explains himself in a voluble but engaging manner, sees in both “this dynamic of a few powerful interests in D.C. holding a lot of sway, and regular people having relatively little sway,” he said.

Bedoya believes government surveillance and private-sector data collection take advantage of disadvantaged populations. He pointed to recent revelations that the National Security Agency’s much-maligned phone records collection program was actually beta tested on immigrants.

It was discovered earlier this year that the Drug Enforcement Agency started in the 1990s was tracking all international phone calls from the United States to Latin American countries.

“For 20 years, any time I called my grandmother in Peru, it was probably logged in some DEA database for five years,” he said.

Such actions gradually narrow personal privacy, that hard-to-define area, he said, where life happens, where learning happens, where love happens.

“It’s really the sauce of life,” Bedoya concluded, translating a Spanish phrase, “La salsa de la vida.”

“The wonderful things about life are really caught up in this stuff,” he said. “Privacy for me is about being able to have the fruit of life and not have other people calling you on it. I love that.”

And he doesn’t think enough tech-literate policymakers in Washington are looking at it that way. That’s what he believes his center can bring to the debate.

“There’s this huge problem in tech policy, and privacy in particular, where lawyers have no idea what the engineers are saying and engineers have no idea what the lawyers are
saying,” Bedoya said.

The center this spring began offering a course meant to get law students conversant in tech and cybersecurity policy.

“We’re not going to magically create hacker lawyers with a course,” he said with a laugh. “But we will create folks who generally know what they’re talking about.”

He also hopes the center can help cut through the outsized influence of industry lobbying he believes has smothered the D.C. conversation on consumer digital privacy.

“The lobbying can be totally overwhelming,” he said. “It floods the field.”

Bedoya recently banded with other privacy and consumer advocates and quit the ongoing facial recognition code of conduct talks, frustrated at the industry associations’ unwillingness to budge.

While companies such as Microsoft, Apple, and to a lesser extent Google and Facebook, have shown a willingness to work with privacy advocates, Bedoya believes the industry groups that represent them are often just bulwarks, refusing to cede any ground.  

“Industry lobbying is very much shutting down real gains in consumer privacy in Washington,” he said. “You get the sense that their main goal is to stop what you’re doing no matter what.”

Bedoya sees the center as an opportunity to go past the lobbyists and get his message to a broader audience as the world moves toward the default collection of everything.

“We’re coming to a much bigger problem that affects everybody,” he said. “We have some huge questions that we need to answer.”