Chris Soghoian’s One-Man Crusade

by Reihan Salam

Mike Kessler has written a profile of Chris Soghoian, a privacy activist who has been tirelessly demonstrating the flaws computer security systems used in the public and private sectors. At the end of the profile, Keller describes the work Soghoian is doing right now and the work he’d like to do next:

Soghoian’s financial situation improved in August when he began a George Soros Open Society Foundations fellowship, which gives him a high-five-figure stipend and a research assistant. His fellowship project is a website called PrivacyReports.org, which will grade telecom and ISP privacy practices for the layperson. Search engines, email providers, cell phone companies, online backup services—Soghoian will break down each company’s level of security and privacy protections. “Visitors will be able to know how long providers are retaining their text messages and whether they provide law enforcement easy access to your location data,” he says. “People have a right to know what companies aren’t telling them. My hope is that after a year, once I have the data up and it’s proving to be useful, I can give it to the ACLU or someone like that to run.”

And then? Soghoian says that under the right circumstances he’d consider another government job—ideally for the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which advises the White House on matters of individual privacy. It has been inactive since 2008. “I don’t want security clearance,” he says. “I don’t need a staff. I just want to be an ombudsman, with an office and letterhead and access to lawyers and a fax machine. I know it’ll never happen. They’re not going to want someone who has a track record of speaking truth to power using their soapbox to point out their flaws. But that would be an ideal gig.”

Among conservatives, George Soros is not exactly a beloved figure. He does deserve credit, however, for backing projects that advance personal (if not not economic) freedoms in the United States and around the world, particularly in central and eastern Europe. The project Soghoian is working on now would fill a huge gap, and it would be far better for it to be supported by civil society than by the state. 

As for Soghoian’s dream job, it would be nice, if unlikely, to see a Republican administration appoint him to an ombudsman role.