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 Rural Startup That Turns Invasive Fish Into Gourmet Delicacies, the Case for Reforming Terrorists and More

Get Rich. Save the World. Gut Fish, Bloomberg
Flashy tech solutions, artificial intelligence and all things “disruptive” have been in the spotlight for years now, but the latest presidential election has shed light on the rural areas left behind by these job-killing innovations. Now some venture capitalists are paying attention, investing in rural innovations like turning harmful fish populations into local delicacies. Industry optimists are betting on the rise of this “impact investing” to create both financial and social returns.
Can You Turn a Terrorist Back Into a Citizen? Wired
The threat of extremism looms heavily over the world today, but a fledgling program in Minnesota aims to do what some consider impossible — rehabilitate would-be terrorists back into the fold of society. The deradicalization process is painstakingly slow and delicate, but could end up both saving lives and building trust in a political climate where Muslim communities feel increasingly persecuted.
Eating Disorders Are Getting the Silicon Valley Treatment, Fast Company
More than 30 million Americans suffer from eating disorders, but the disease has long been written off as “a white girl vanity issue.” Now big players from tech and academia are stepping in to reduce stigma and foster community. The hope is that increased visibility and research will accelerate recovery for those affected and create a support network for the future.

Using AI as a Weapon Against Overfishing, A New Approach to Helping Homeless Addicts and More

How AI Can Help Keep Ocean Fisheries Sustainable, Fast Company
Overfishing is a huge threat to global ecosystems, but experts are taking a cue from Silicon Valley to find a solution. By mounting cameras on fishing boats and using the same facial recognition tech that Facebook uses to identify people in photos, scientists can classify different fish species and help root out illegal harvests.
A Sober Utopia, Pacific Standard
A new program in Colorado takes a radical approach to helping homeless addicts — giving them the freedom to rebuild their lives on their own terms. Housed in Fort Lyon (ironically, a former prison), the program is a mix of rehab, university and startup, with many residents pursuing creative interests and building businesses as they become sober.
Inside LAX’s New Anti-Terrorism Intelligence Unit, The Atlantic
With 75 million travelers passing through its terminals every year, LAX is one of the most vulnerable terrorist targets in the U.S. But the airport behemoth has built an intelligence team from the ground up with analytic capabilities that “rival the agencies of a small nation-state.” The team’s innovative approach to fighting terrorism could signal a larger shift in the way global infrastructure sites protect themselves — building their own intelligence units when “the FBI, CIA, and Homeland Security [are] simply not good enough.”
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Fighting Terrorism and Warding Off Cybersecurity Attacks Are All in a Day’s Work for This Lawyer

Former federal attorney Brendan McGuire has won convictions against some of the world’s worst criminals and terrorists. He successfully prosecuted cases in New York City courtrooms against Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani immigrant who tried to detonate a car bomb in Times Square, and Abduwali Muse, a Somali pirate who hijacked Captain Richard Phillip’s American-flagged cargo ship (that drama was captured in the 2013 Oscar-nominated thriller “Captain Phillips”). This spring, he moved to the private sector, joining the law firm WilmerHale where he helps white-collar clients identify illegal money laundering, fend off cybersecurity attacks and comprehend the complexities of international trade law. In a conversation with NationSwell, McGuire reflected on the value of his public service and what the country can do to attract younger workers to government jobs.
What’s the best advice you have ever been given on leadership?
The best advice I’ve been given is really rooted in communication and understanding how to make those with whom you’re working feel invested in whatever it is they’re doing. Obviously that can take a number of forms. But in many respects, some of the most effective leaders have been those who attempt to build up the people they work with in such a way that, in theory, the leader could be rendered irrelevant.
A really formative experience for me was playing basketball in college. I had two coaches who understood that you don’t need the five best players on a team to win a championship. What you need are the five most complementary players, players who are going to do different things and have different strengths and weakness. But ultimately, they must be prepared to surrender themselves to the mission of the team. [This was instrumental] for me in setting goals once I entered the professional world.
What’s on your nightstand?
Right now I am reading a biography of George Washington, which approaches him in a frankly different way: not as the first president of the country or as the first great general, but as the first entrepreneur in the United States. It is an interesting, different take on a relatively well-known figure. And then I’ve got a bunch of other half-read books about terrorism and intelligence, which is what on what I focus on for work.
What innovations in your field are you most excited about right now?
Law enforcement, in many ways, is a very traditional field that is often playing catch-up with the next innovative criminal method or criminal objective. One of the true challenges now, which the current administration has made a real effort toward, is trying to harness technological innovation to support the country’s intelligence and its counterterrorism and other law enforcement efforts. Continuing to foster a productive relationship among Silicon Valley, younger generations and the intelligence community will be key to national security. Doing so will also dispose with the myth that the government, in aiming to protect us, is always trying to spy on us and dispel any misconception, particularly among younger Americans, that they can’t feel good about serving the country. There is an ability to balance privacy and security. To me, the most important innovation we should be focused on is really a human one, and that is continually trying to make government service, particularly in the cyber field, as appealing as possible — that’s the direction the world is heading in and for which there will be an incredible need in this country and around the world.
You’ve prosecuted some tough, high-profile cases, and I imagine they caused a lot of sleepless nights. Where do you find your inner motivation?
There’s a lot of cynicism about certain aspects of government today, and that can allow for misconceptions about working in government. Many people who have served in government in different capacities will often tell you that it is the most rewarding job they’ve ever had – that it combines the privilege of serving with a job where your self-interest aligns with the public’s. When you’re able to do that, there’s real potential for significant satisfaction, because you’re doing something that is both personally fulfilling and serves a higher cause. It can be very challenging work; there are nights without necessarily a great deal of sleep. But for those who find fulfilling government jobs, that’s a very small price to pay.
What do you wish someone had told you when you started this job?
Focus most of your time on doing your job, and don’t obsess over the next job. Often, those coming out of school and graduate programs feel pressure to script their professional narrative from day one, which means they’re spending time figuring out their next chapter as opposed to doing the best job they can in their current chapter. You can’t be blind to the future but, in many respects, the next thing will take care of itself if you prove yourself to those you work with. If you treat people with respect and do what you’ve been hired to do, a lot of things will present themselves naturally.
What’s your perfect day?
I wish I could tell you that I’ve discovered the formula, but for me, the perfect day is not having to check my phone and getting to look instead at my two kids for as many hours of the day as I can. Probably, at this point, with a 5-year-old and a 1-year-old, it’s as simple and boring as that.
What’s your proudest accomplishment?
Professionally speaking, it was being sworn in as an assistant U.S. attorney in New York. It was a position that my father had when he was younger. It was the job that I had sought for many, many years, and one that I always had hoped would be my dream job. And it ended up being that. Looking back on it now, that day where they actually let me in the building and I held up my right hand to be sworn in is probably the day I’m most proud of.
What don’t most people know about you?
I’ve mounted my own private protest: I have refused to attend a New York Knicks game for about 10 years because of the team’s current ownership.
To learn more about the NationSwell Council, click here.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Homepage photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

When Terror Strikes at Home, Empathy Helps Teens Move Forward

In the early morning hours of a September Tuesday, Joseph Pycior, Jr., arrived at work. Headquartered for nearly three years at what his father called “the safest place in the world” — the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. — Pycior compiled raw data into digestible tidbits for press releases.
The desk work may not have been as exhilarating as his previous position, serving as a member of the navy in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm, but it gave the 39-year-old a chance to see his kids more often, taking them camping or fishing on occasion. Plus, he’d just put in his papers for retirement. He was four months from his golden years, a new job as a middle-school history teacher and a move back home to New Jersey.
Around 9:15 a.m. Pycior heard a report about a plane flying into the World Trade Center. He phoned his wife to see if she knew. Then he called his mother in Jersey and told her to look outside at the billowing smoke. Fifteen minutes later, at 9:37 a.m., another plane, a Boeing 757, slammed into the massive five-sided building, which houses the U.S. Department of Defense.
His son Robert Pycior, who goes by Robbie, was only eight years old as firefighters dug up the victims from the rubble and as news anchors confirmed that 184 people died at the Pentagon alone. For Robbie and each of the 3,050 children who lost a parent on Sept. 11, the experience of a parent’s death could feel isolating. The struggle to heal continues to single out victims of terrorism, 15 years after the attacks.
“For these teenagers, the sudden, violent and public nature of their loss becomes an overwhelming and defining characteristic of their lives,” says Terry Sears, executive director of Tuesday’s Children, a nonprofit that promotes healing for 9/11 victims. “Their experience is not something that’s easily shared with others.”
Every summer, Tuesday’s Children provides a welcoming place to share that experience in a tranquil setting. During a weeklong session, the organization’s Project COMMON BOND brings together several dozen teenagers, ages 15 to 20, at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. American teenagers affected by 9/11 wanted an international community who’d suffered similar loss inspired the program, which is now in its eighth year. Half the group of 60 are Americans who lost a parent in 9/11 or in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the remaining are international teens (from countries like France, Spain, India, Pakistan, Israel, Palestine, Kenya, Indonesia, Macedonia and Northern Ireland) who lost a family member to terrorism.
“The most important thing is just recognizing that the pain will be there. There will always be that hole in your heart, as the saying goes. You can fill that hole by sharing your story, by using your story to help others, by having a positive impact in somebody’s life … but it will never be completely filled,” Robbie Pycior, who returned to the camp for a second time as a counselor this year, tells NationSwell in an interview. “Twenty years from now, I still realize, ’Wait, I can’t tell my father about something’. As opposed to moving on from your loss, it’s moving on with your loss, with your loved one, with their memory.”
Pycior, a volunteer firefighter in his hometown of East Windsor, N.J., not far from Trenton, the state capital, just graduated from college, where he majored in psychology and history. He’s going back to school this September at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., to obtain his masters in social work. Even the second time around, Project COMMON BOND was a “roller coaster” of emotions. It left him feeling “sort of exhausted,” but in a good way, “like you’ve accomplished something.” He was amazed that people from so many different cultural backgrounds — often from conflict-torn countries — could find commonality.
“People who come to COMMON BOND could have lost someone at a very young age or lost them three years ago, as a 17 year old. They have very different perspectives than someone who experienced that at three months old,” Pycior says. “It’s hard to explain other than that we get each other. There’s an unspoken understanding that we know what it’s like to be in each others’ shoes. We understand what grief is and having that with people from 12 or 13 different countries is extremely powerful.”
Project COMMON BOND isn’t just a chance to unload a heavy emotional burden. Like Seeds of Peace (a youth peacebuilding organization), the curriculum is meticulously designed — in this case, by experts from Harvard Law School’s Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program. The model involves intensive group therapy as well as leadership training, conflict resolution and peace-building exercises.
The initiative uses the “dignity model” (designed by Donna Hicks, an associate at Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs), which teaches ways to respect every person’s inborn and inalienable dignity, says Monica Meehan McNamara, the program’s curriculum director. By talking through stereotypes and preconceived judgments, the kids get closer to removing the “blinders” we have about other cultures and “building empathy for other people,” she adds. It’s a lesson whose importance seems to grow daily, as tensions deepen domestically between African-Americans and police officers and abroad with ISIS recruiting extremists across the globe.
“The whole week people talk about the loss that they had, but they’re also thinking about what produces terrorism and violence,” Meehan McNamara says. “One young woman from France spoke about having witnessed her father, best friends and cousin being killed by terrorists in Saudi Arabia and how devastating that was. About four or five years later, [the murderers] were caught and brought to trial. People said to her, ‘Aren’t you glad about being able to get revenge? To put them away?’ Looking at [the attackers], she realized they were children once. She wondered, How did they come to this other place, this extreme? … Throughout the week, they’re offering their story about the way it impacted their family and the trauma that some still carry. They want to understand how such a thing can happen, but they also want work on the side of counteracting that.”
The afternoons, in contrast, are all centered around lighthearted, creative play, through drama, art, music or sports. It’s a chance to sublimate the morning’s raw emotion, to unwind and just be a kid. Some days, you’re playing soccer with a talented club player from Algeria who always lets someone else score or teaching foreigners ultimate frisbee; other days you’re acting silly, improvising throwing an invisible ball around a circle.
The final day at Project COMMON BOND looks like any other summer camp. Many are scribbling down email addresses and phone numbers to stay in touch. Tears dampen several eyes. “You’ve formed such a close, tight bond with people. Someone 9,000 miles away are some of your best friends,” Robbie Pycior says. He asks the instructors if he can help clean up the place afterward. He doesn’t want to go just yet. Eventually, Robbie gets into his car, counts to 10 to calm himself down and hits the road back home.