Meet the Privacy Expert on a Mission to Protect Your Digital Footprint

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a new breed of nationalism took root that trained its attention on the foreigners among us. In response, the federal government adopted a set of strict policies and legislation that tracked immigrants in general and Muslim communities in particular.
“I felt like the whole country was in turmoil and at risk of abandoning its values for a false sense of security,” says Tim Sparapani, an expert in digital privacy and a NationSwell Council member. “I was always taught at moments like that you don’t look away; you get involved.”
So Sparapani did, finding his passion for social impact and public service within those tumultuous days. He joined the American Civil Liberties Union as senior legislative counsel and later helped establish Facebook’s presence in Washington as its first director of public policy. These days, the D.C.-based Sparapani leads SPQR Strategies, which he founded in 2011 as a consulting firm focused on online and digital data privacy.
It was at the ACLU that Sparapani gained his reputation as a fierce advocate for individual privacy, becoming a protector against what he says was unconstitutional policies. That included the Real ID Act of 2005, a significant piece of 9/11 legislation introduced and championed by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), which required people who applied for a driver’s license or a government ID to produce five types of identification to prove their identity, such as a social security number, birth certificate, proof of citizenship and home address, and a mortgage statement or utility bill.
Democrats and the ACLU, along with moderate Republicans and a handful of libertarian organizations like the CATO Institute, thought the statute was “deeply unconstitutional,” says Sparapani. “Once you pulled back the layers, you saw it was based on nativism and ugly xenophobia.”
After the bill passed, Sparapani and his team at the ACLU spearheaded a campaign that urged states to resist the federal regulations. They made their push to the public by highlighting how the new driver’s licenses mandated under the bill — which would have electronic chips that stored a person’s name, address, birth date and social security number — were prone to identity theft, could be used to track individuals’ travel, and would cost taxpayers billions of dollars.
“We were able to get dozens of states to independently enact legislation resisting the federal statute. That hasn’t happened since the Civil War,” Sparapani says. “It was our strategy to have state-by-state resistance to something that was tremendous overreach.”
Though the Real ID Act is still enshrined in federal law and, starting next year, will bar certain state IDs from being used to fly or gain access to federal buildings, Sparapani credits the campaign as his “a-ha moment,” when he realized there was a need to protect all U.S. residents’ privacy, especially from a government that he saw as wielding too much power.
“There was this new opportunity in the computer-database era for the government to exercise control over people in all sorts of nefarious ways by using technology for ill,” Sparapani says, adding that he’d like to see more people take up the cause for privacy rights online. “It’s kind of up to all of us to decide the rules for how we use technology as a society and put limits on it that are aligned with our constitutional values.”


Tim Sparapani is a NationSwell Council member and the founder of SPQR Strategies, a consulting firm that works with startups, established companies, and consumer and privacy advocates on the policy challenges raised by emerging technologies.

The State That Plans to Issue Digital Drivers’ Licenses

Technology may soon encroach the rite of passage of getting a driver’s license, turning a once antiquated tradition into another digital download.
The Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) will begin rolling out a highly secure app that features a resident’s driver’s license next year, according to DOT Director Paul Trombino.
Unveiled at the state agency’s budget meeting, the new app will serve as “an identity vault app” using a pin number for verification, the Des Moines Register reports. The DOT plans to allow the use of  digital licenses during traffic stops and at airport security screenings, but also as a way to reconnect with citizens.

“I think the longer term prospect is if you can really be successful in establishing a driver’s license as an app, it really transforms the way we can interact with the customer,” says Mark Lowe, director of the Motor Vehicle Division at the state’s DOT. “It really becomes instead of a thing in your pocket, it becomes a customer relationship.”

The state agency plans to internally build and test a prototype type over the next six months, according to Government Technology. The goal is to introduce the app as an alternative to temporary permit licenses granted before permanent licenses are mailed out, eventually hoping to replacing traditional licenses as well.

With more residents reliant on smartphones, Trombino contends it’s a logical step in updating government practices. The state agency is exploring other forms of technology through a program to install dashboard cameras on snowplows, an initiative for “paperless construction projects,” more driver’s license kiosks and a new type of bridge building via modular construction. Iowa is also one of more than three dozen states that enables drivers to carry electronic proof of insurance.

Digital licenses also help allay concerns over stolen licenses by eliminating the chance of losing a physical card and introducing more security with the use of biometric data, Lowe adds. Another benefit includes saving time. For example, changing an address wouldn’t require an in-person visit to the DMV, but instead a simple update on the app.
While the agency still has some kinks to work out in developing the app, Lowe contends the idea makes sense for the modern lifestyle.

“It came from us having mobile devices and using them the ways that everybody is using them and really thinking about the possibilities,” Lowe says. “It’s hard to use your device and use it for mobile boarding passes and not think ‘why couldn’t I carry my license this way?’”

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