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Privacy Perspectives | Privacy Goes Mainstream at SXSW and TED2014 Related reading: The latest COVID-19-related privacy updates


For those immersed in the privacy profession, the last few years have seen a dramatic change in the public’s awareness of privacy issues, rising from relative obscurity to downright mainstream. A personal litmus test for me, and many of my IAPP colleagues, revolves around how easy it is to explain what we do for a living:

“Yeah, so I work for a privacy association,” we might say over drinks at a party.

“Oh, so you’re in IT?”

“Well, not quite, but there is overlap…”

So the conversation often goes. Over the years we’ve tried to master our elevator speech. The rate of eyes growing glassy is inversely proportionate to explanation efficiency.

But now, privacy really is mainstream. It’s not just in Wall Street Journal investigative reports, law review articles or global interoperability standards. It’s all over the front pages and television. For two weeks in a row, 60 Minutes featured reports on the data broker industry and drones. But, perhaps more dramatically, privacy has been a front-and-center feature at this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) collection of film, music and interactive conferences and this year’s TED2014 event.

A month after the RSA Conference in San Francisco—another huge event where privacy was at the forefront—the influential SXSW and TED events featured talks by some of the privacy world’s largest figures. Edward Snowden, it’s no coincidence, spoke remotely at both.

Held annually in Austin, TX, SXSW features thousands of music performers and films, those in emerging technology and boasts of keynote speakers ranging from astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to former First Daughter Chelsea Clinton. Other headliners, though, were Wikileaks mastermind Julian Assange and whistleblower/unauthorized leaker (depending on your opinion) Edward Snowden. Flanked by the ACLU's Ben Wizner and Christopher Soghoian and apparently housed in Saul Goodman’s office, Snowden appeared in front of the U.S. Constitution writ large. Not always the smoothest transmission due to seven proxy servers, Snowden’s appearance garnered quite a bit of audience applause … and headlines.

Snowden then appeared last week as a telepresent robot at TED2014, in Vancouver, Canada. This year’s conference—its 30th anniversary and whose mantra is “Ideas Worth Spreading”—hosted more than 70 speakers and performers.

Snowden was even joined by World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee to discuss his proposal for a digital Magna Carta and the future of the Internet. “We don’t have to give up our privacy,” Snowden noted, “to have good government, and we don’t have to give up our civil liberties to have security.”

But the National Security Agency (NSA) wanted a say as well, so two days later, NSA Deputy Director Richard Ledgett appeared on screen—not as a telepresent robot unfortunately—to “correct” some of the untruths and have a “fact-based conversation.” So there you have it, perhaps the quintessential privacy debate happening almost in real time at TED2014.

And on Twitter, people listened in to hear what the NSA had to say.

But that wasn’t all.

Google CEO Larry Page made a rare public appearance at TED and discussed, among many topics, his ambition to create a “worldwide mesh” of Internet connectivity. How does he plan on doing that? Huge balloons. Go figure. He also discussed the company’s ambition to propel artificial intelligence to the next level. Oh, and those algorithms are only getting smarter.

Earlier at SXSW, Page’s Google counterpart, Eric Schmidt, appeared with Google Ideas Director Jared Cohen to discuss how technology is affecting global social change and how it’s impacting privacy, security and public policy.

Tech start-ups also made their presence felt at SWSX.

Wickr CEO Nico Wells said, “The next generation of start-ups, those in the next 10 years that will survive, will be the ones that put security first,” and added, “now the benefits of the Internet have been proven and privacy is in demand and people are willing to pay.” Others, such as Omlet, a privacy-focused chat app, made their debut at the festival as well.

Marketing group AdMISSION posted a blog on SXSW and noted that “The big theme of SXSW this year was the issue of privacy in today’s ever more connected society.”

Covington & Burling Global Privacy and Data Security Practice Group member Kristen Eichensehr spoke on a panel about cyber warfare and how international law applies to cyber attacks. Another session was called “Privacy is Dead: Long Live Privacy,” while others included “Drones: Policy, Privacy & Public Safety,” “Is Privacy a Right or an Illusion?” “Innovation & Kids’ Privacy: Can They Coexist,” “Privacy, Permission & the Evolution of Big Data,” and “Privacy Swap: Better Brand Experiences at a Price.” And this was just a selection of titles from the first of five pages of sessions with the word “privacy” in the title!

Of course, privacy professionals have had and continue to have a huge role both internally and externally in helping their colleagues, friends and family understand the importance of privacy. But it’s welcoming and exciting to see huge gatherings such as RSA, SXSW and TED feature privacy as a headliner.

This is good news for privacy pros.

As privacy goes more mainstream, the role of the privacy pro will only grow more significant … and perhaps easier to explain.


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