Interview with Dave Banisar
1) How did you started to be involved with data protection and privacy?
I become interested in the issue in the early 1990s at the time of the raids by Secret
Service’s in Operation Sundevil and the arrest of the editor of Phrack Craig Neidorf. I
had been using computers for about 10 years and was in law school and had previously
worked as a law clerk for a local public defender office and thought that it was
interesting combining my 2 interests since there were so few people who had a tech
background doing law at the time.
So I started helping gathering computer crime laws for Computer Underground Digest and
interned at the Washington Office of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility
where we worked on the early fights against crypto restrictions, fighting expansion of
wiretapping and trying to promote Internet privacy before most people had heard of the
2) Can you tell us about your work, research and publications?
I was the creator and the author of the first three EPIC/PI Privacy and Human Rights
reports. It was fascinating trying to pull together all this diverse information to show how the rest of the world had gone ahread
and adopted privacy laws while the US still was trying to deny their existence.
These days, I focus mostly on looking at the global picture on issues such as freedom
of information and whistleblowing or help people in countries that have pending bills
and reviews by making recommendations on how they can improve their laws. You can see
some of those at http://wwwprivacyinternational.org/foi/
3) Let* ´s talk about the Clipper chip debate and the Gmail case
The Clipper Chip was the first great battle for computer privacy. It made a lot of
people recognize that there were these privacy problems on the net and that the
Government was playing a largely negative role in trying to make everything wiretap
friendly. It also sparked a great deal of interest in technical means of protecting
privacy, just the opposite of what the government wanted everyone to do.
Gmail was an interesting recent battle. We asked the privacy commissioners in a lot of
countries to look into the way Google collects and uses information from its user’s
email boxes. It was our attempt to get people to recognize that corporate collecting
and use of information is every bit as dangerous as government surveillance. We are
still following up to see what will be done. We got a lot of hate mail from people who
seem to think we were trying to take away their gmail accounts.
The Gmail experience was also very useful since its allowed us recently to be able to
ask the same privacy commissioners in even more countries to investigate how the US is
spying on the world’s financial transactions via the SWIFT network. There is something fundamentally wrong with the US claiming it can spy on anyone without any kind of legal
4) Can you tell us about EPIC, PI, BBA… a little bit about how was it to work there?
EPIC was started by Marc Rotenberg, David Sobel and I in 1994. Previously we had all
worked for the Washington Office of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility.
We were fighting the Digital Telephony bill (adopted as CALEA), and the Clipper Chip
and wanted to focus more on DC privacy issues. It was very exciting times, almost a
crusade for privacy, fighting with government and corporate (and even our fellow NGOs
sometimes) to promote it. Then following that, we had the fights on the Communications
Decency Act, taking the case (with the ACLU , ALA etc.) all the way to the Supreme Court and winning.
Privacy International was started by Simon Davies in the mid 1980′s in Australia
following the Australia Card campaign. He realized back in the pre-Internet days how
important and common the experiences of privacy campaigners were around the world and
brought it together as a network. I got involved around 1992, running the DC office and
since 2002 have been in London as Deputy Director and head of the FOI Project. We are
still pretty small but we work across the globe, working one day on anti-terror laws in
Russia, data protection and wiretapping in South Africa and freedom of information in
Mexico, along with our campaigns in the UK.
The Big Brother Awards was another of Simon’s evil genius inspirations. He figured
that privacy invaders needed to be named and shamed. We have always done them as a form
of mock Academy Awards, with people dressed up in costume to receive awards and funny
video’s of trying to deliver the awards. My favorite was trying to mock deliver them
to the US National Security Agency. It was a close call going to their campus and
secretly video taping them and being followed by the security. But it was a great
video. The last few years the BBAs have really caught on around the world. Without us
even trying, dozens of countries now have their own ceremonies and awards. The
Austrians always seem to have the most over the top ones.
5) Any interesting anecdots?
Top Secret Codeword. Would have to kill you if i told you etc…. (well thats what you
get for asking for info from a privacy advocate).
6) Since when you are in the FOI debate? The FOI campaign in the UK?
Freedom of information has really become an important right in the era of information.
I’ve been privileged to be about to go around the world for the last five years helping
people adopt laws and seeing how they work. The UK campaign was one of the longest in
the world, taking over 20 years from the start to the law going into force. its still
early days but it seems to be working reasonably well tho there are big problems with
the Information Commission. The Campaign for Freedom of Information
deserves all the credit for making it happen.
7) Isnt there a contradiction between pushing for Privacy and pushing for FOI? If there is a
conflict between them, which one should prevail? What should be the legal standard?
Privacy and FOI and both complimentary and contradictory. The President of the French
Data Protection Commission” (CNIL) describes their role as “two forms of protection
against the Leviathan state that have the aim of restoring the balance between the
citizen and the state”. The two laws really are about adjusting the power of the govt.
I think most of the problems are actually manufactured by officials trying to use the
excuse of privacy to hide their expenses or who they meet or avoid taking public
responsibility or a decision that they made. The opposite is when corps use foi to
obtain personal information about people held by government bodies. I think that is an
Ultimately, both types of laws need to be written better to make sure they are not
abused and include a form of public interest test that balanced the two on a case by
case basis. Its nice to be able to say one thing or the other but in the real world,
its not really possible to do right.
Entrevista por Pablo Palazzi via e-mail entre noviembre y diciembre de 2006