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.

These 10 Documentaries Will Change How You See America

Documentary films are known for sparking social change. (Case in point: Who wants to eat at McDonalds after seeing Super Size Me or Food, Inc.? What parent suggests visiting SeaWorld after seeing Blackfish?) Though 2014’s nonfiction films weren’t massive box office hits, they pointed out injustice and lifted our eyes to the doers making a difference. Here are the 10 must-see documentaries that inspired us to action.

10. The Great Invisible

BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 still darkens the coastline along the Gulf of Mexico in the form of altered ecosystems and ruined lives. Named best documentary at the SXSW Film Festival, Margaret Brown’s documentary dives deep beyond the news coverage you may remember into a tale of corporate greed and lasting environmental damage.

9. If You Build It

Two designers travel to the poorest county in rural North Carolina to teach a year-long class, culminating in building a structure for the community. In this heartwarming story, 10 students learn much more than construction skills.

8. The Kill Team

An infantry soldier struggles with his wartime experience after alerting the military his Army platoon had killed civilians in Afghanistan. On the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ long list for best documentary, Dan Krauss’s challenging film shows how morality dissolves in the fog of war and terror of battle.

7. Starfish Throwers

Three people — a renowned cook, a preteen girl and a retired teacher — inspire an international movement to end hunger. Jesse Roesler’s film includes the story of Allan Law, the man who handed out 520,000 sandwiches during the course of a year in Minneapolis, which we featured on NationSwell.

6. Lady Valor: The Kristin Beck Story

A former Navy SEAL (formerly named Christopher, now Kristin) says that changing genders, not military service, was the biggest battle of her life. In retrospect, her SEAL experience takes on new importance as she comes to understand the true value of the words “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

5. The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz

An online pioneer who developed Creative Commons with the academic and political activist Lawrence Lessig at age 15 and co-founded Reddit at 19, Swartz crusaded for a free and open internet. Another potential Oscar candidate, the film poignantly recounts how Swartz ended his own life at age 26 after aggressive prosecutors initiated a federal case against him.

4. True Son

A 22-year-old black man recently graduated from Stanford returns to his bankrupt hometown of Stockton, Calif., to run for city council. Michael Tubbs convinces his neighbors (and the movie’s audiences) you can have “a father in jail and a mother who had you as a teenager, and still have a seat at the table.”

3. The Hand That Feeds

After years of abuse from their bosses, a group of undocumented immigrants working for a New York City bakery unionize for fair wages and better working conditions. Led by a demure sandwich maker, the employees partner with young activists to fight their case against management and the food chain’s well-connected investors.

2. Rich Hill

Three boys confront impoverishment, learning disabilities and dysfunctional families in this human portrait of growing up in small-town America. The backdrop to the teenagers’ lives is their Missouri hometown of 1,396 residents, where one in five lives in poverty and where the fireworks still glow every Fourth of July.

1. The Overnighters

Our top film and a favorite for an Academy Award nomination details how an oil boom draws a city-sized influx of workers to a small town in North Dakota, where they scrape by on day labor and live in their cars. With the heft, detail and narrative twists of a Steinbeck novel, Jesse Moss profiles the Lutheran pastor Jay Reinke, who welcomes these desperate men into a shelter called “The Overnighters,” to his congregation’s dismay.

Are there any documentaries that should have made the cut? Let us know in the comments below.

This Teacher Made a Viral Photo to Teach About Internet Safety

Here’s a great example of an effective lesson. This middle school teacher took to the Internet to teach her students about online security and privacy. This photo has been shared tens of thousands of times and received hundreds of thousands of likes on Facebook. The lesson in Internet safety is especially relevant right now as there are 5.6 million users in violation of Facebook’s minimum age of 13, and kids are becoming more and more active on internet-connected devices from phones to tablets to computers.