Electronic Frontier Foundation celebrates 25 years of defending online privacy

While cops and firefighters are often ready to retire after 25 years on the job protecting citizens, this privacy watchdog organization has a full agenda for the future as it celebrates its 25th anniversary today

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"We're part of a coalition trying to issue better certificates," she said. "This is really important for enterprises, to have a secure Internet, so that when you think you're going to the bank's website, you're actually going to the bank's website."

The EFF is also working on expanding protections on metadata, information about data and messages that is usually transmitted in unencrypted form even when the rest of the communication is encrypted.

It allows government agencies, criminals, foreign powers and even advertisers to track user behavior on the Web, to see who they communicate with, and, with the spread of smart mobile devices, to track where users go physically, as well.

"The Justice Department has been interpreting the constitution to mean that you have no expectation of privacy to metadata," she said. "That is just wrong."

The EFF has long maintained that the Fourth Amendment, prohibiting unreasonable search and seizures, covers metadata as well.

"The government needs a warrant to access this information," she said. "We're working on this, and have been involved in several cases at the Supreme Court."

That includes the 2012 decision that law enforcement officers can't install GPS tracking devices without warrants.

[ A BIT OF HISTORY Texas, EFF Suits Target Sony's XCP ]

Last year, the EFF filed a brief in support of the right to privacy for telephone metadata in a case against NSA spying.

Protecting metadata against criminals, however, requires a different approach.

This is where, for example, the Onion router network has a legitimate use.

"So we support TOR," she said.

According to Cohn, the best way to fight against cybercriminals is to allow users and companies to protect themselves as well as possible.

"Everyone deserves strong security so that the bad guys can't get to our stuff in the first place," she said.

That's an approach that many security experts can get behind.

"Providing companies with assets and tools to better protect themselves is the most effective method of prevention – no matter where in the world a company is located," said Brett Hansen, Dell's executive director for client solutions security product management.

The proposal to restrict exports of some security software and tools is counter-productive, he said.

"Allowing all organizations to share the tools and knowledge to help fight cyber criminals is the best way for all us all to improve our defenses.," he said.

According to EFF's Cohn, it's a positive sign that more and more companies are building security and encryption right into their products, to make privacy easier for end users.

"Apple's decision to encrypt the data at rest on your iPhone -- obviously, the FBI is not happy about that," she said. "But Apple went ahead and offered it."

The EFF represents the best of an empowered democracy, said Michelle Dennedy, chief privacy officer at Intel Security.

"They take on thorny issues like free speech, surveillance and privacy," she said. "They act for the many where the single person may not have the depth or expertise, the voice or the financial independence to act. In an information society, someone must stand at the ready, to ring a clarion call for justice. Thank you, EFF."

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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