Angwin to speak on investigative work, protecting privacy



Information has long been equated with power. Since 9/11 and the dot-com bubble bust, it has been collected on a massive scale by the United States government, businesses and criminals alike.

At 3 p.m. Saturday in the Hall of Philosophy, journalist Julia Angwin will speak about her journey uncovering the vast collection of personal data in the U.S. and her attempt to escape the net of pervasive surveillance. Angwin is a senior reporter at ProPublica and the author of Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance. Her talk is part of the Women’s Club’s Contemporary Issues Forum series.

“Just the existence of this data is important,” Angwin said.

The phone records and online data that the National Security Agency began collecting and storing in bulk after 9/11 not only include information about the identity of reporters’ sources, but also about the contacts and preferences of everyone communicating via this technology.  

Angwin wants people to know two things in particular about protecting their personal information.

“There are some things we can do as individuals to protect our privacy, and there are some things that we all need to do together,” she said. “It’s not hopeless.”

Using environmental conservation as a metaphor, Angwin likened recycling to the things that individuals can do to be better citizens, and equated the passage of federal laws such as the Clean Water Act to collective action.

“We don’t have all the tools, but we have more than we think,” Angwin said. “There’s some very simple, low-hanging fruit. People do have some control. For instance, they can choose better passwords and protect themselves when browsing the Web. … I took the protest route. I tried to opt out of 200 data brokers online, but could only opt out of fewer than 90, and only 13 showed me the data they had collected about me.” 

Early in her career, Angwin identified privacy protection as an issue. 

“I’m from Silicon Valley,” she said. “Technology is in my blood. In 2009, I realized that technology companies were collecting our personal data, though I would never have predicted it to be as big an issue as it is now.”

While majoring in mathematics at the University of Chicago, Angwin was a reporter for The Chicago Maroon, the campus paper, and interned at The Washington Post upon graduating.  

Eventually, Angwin began covering technology at The San Francisco Chronicle. During the early dot-com days, the tech industry was taking off and she was the only staff reporter who knew about it. 

“I’m very technically oriented,” she said. “My favorite stories involve looking at computer code.”

The Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California chapter chose Angwin as its Outstanding Young Journalist of the Year in 1998. When Columbia University awarded her a yearlong Knight-Bagehot Fellowship in Economics and Business Journalism, she moved to New York.

In 2000, as the dot-com bubble was about to burst, Angwin began covering technology for The Wall Street Journal. During this period, she researched and wrote Stealing MySpace: The Battle to Control the Most Popular Website in America, which was published in 2009.  

In her recent New York Times op-ed, “Has Privacy Become a Luxury Good?” Angwin raised essential questions about the expansion of the personal data protection market after Edward Snowden’s revelations in June 2013 about U.S. government surveillance programs. 

“Can we ensure that those who can afford to buy privacy services are not being deceived?” she wrote. “And even more important, do we want privacy to be something that only those with disposable money and time can afford?”   

Although Angwin has been criticized as being irrationally optimistic about protecting privacy in an age of vast, indiscriminate data collection and relentless surveillance, she said she is proud of her optimism because fatalism won’t solve the problem. 

“I am hopeful and I have funny stories to share about my investigations, including about kid’s privacy,” she said.