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Electronic Frontier Foundation celebrates 25 years of defending online privacy

Maria Korolov | July 20, 2015
The Electronic Frontier Foundation is the digital world's top watchdog when it comes to privacy and free expression.

09 chief privacy officer
Credit: CSO staff

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is the digital world's top watchdog when it comes to privacy and free expression.

But while cops and firefighters are often ready to retire after 25 years on the job, protecting citizens, the EFF has a full agenda as it celebrates its 25th anniversary today.

The EFF was founded in 1990, when the Web still had just one webpage. Its first major case was one in which the U.S. Secret Service, hunting a stolen documented, raided a company's computers, computers that were also used to run an online bulletin board, and read and deleted those users' messages.

The company, Steve Jackson Games, and some of the users of that bulletin board, thought that the government overstepped its warrant.

The situation inspired former Lotus President Mitch Kapor, Sun Microsystems employee John Gilmore and John Perry Barlow, cattle rancher and Grateful Dead lyricist to form the EFF and represent Steve Jackson Games and their users against the U.S. Secret Service.

In 1993, in a landmark judgment, the courts ruled that law enforcement authorities can't seize electronic mail without a specific warrant.

It was just a warm-up.

In 1995, EFF took on the case of Daniel Bernstein, a math grad student at Berkeley, who wanted to publish an encryption algorithm he developed.

Back then, encryption was considered a national secret, regulated the same way as military weapons.

In order to publish his algorithm, the law at the time required Bernstein to register as an arms dealer and apply for an export license.

In 1999, the courts ruled in his favor, deciding that computer code was, in fact, constitutionally-protected speech.

One of the lawyers on that landmark case was Cindy Cohn, who is now the executive director of the EFF.

And times have changed.

"There are now more people working on making security tools easier and more widespread than ever before," she said. "In the non-profit sector, and in the for-profit sector, whether you're looking at the enterprise level or the individual level, we're seeing more security development and smarter security development now than in the entire 25 years that the EFF has existed."

Cybersecurity experts are applauding the EFF for its work.

"By advocating for privacy rights, and combating invasive legislation, the EFF has bolstered the security of enterprises' most valuable resource -- its employees," said Kunal Rupani, senior product manager at security firm Accellion.

The EFF is also protecting the privacy rights of companies, as well, said Paul Henry, security consultant at Blancco Technology Group.

"When the EFF is behind you, businesses have a fighting chance to protect their assets," he said, pointing to the EFF's recent reaction to the way the authorities shut down the Megaupload file sharing site and prevented legitimate users from being able to get their files back. "That's pretty brave and fearless."


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