Defending privacy in the age of surveillance

Albert Fox Cahn on why we need to update the social contract for the digital age

2 min readJan 14, 2021


Digital technology has made surveillance ubiquitous — and cheap. In New York City alone, there were 22,000+ facial recognition searches in just the last three years, mostly targeting communities of color.

NYC-based lawyer and social entrepreneur Albert Fox Cahn founded Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.) to end discriminatory surveillance and push for policies that balance new technologies with age-old rights.

In this conversation, Ashoka’s Konstanze Frischen talks to Albert about how technology impacts Constitutional rights, the grey area in which law enforcement operates, and how a coalition of citizens works on updating the law to protect privacy. Here are a few highlights:

Response to last week’s attack on the U.S. Capitol

Albert shares his reaction, plus why calls for sweeping new surveillance tools, such as an expanded facial recognition program, are deeply troubling.

Surveillance, past and present

The government’s will to surveil communities of color has a centuries-old history in the U.S., dating back to Colonial times. What has changed? Digital technology has gotten very cheap very quickly — while legal frameworks struggle to keep pace.

Democratizing the surveillance debate

Albert protested police violence as a 12-year-old and as a teenager helped to form interfaith coalitions. So while updating the law is part of the solution, he shares that community-centered efforts to lift up and democratize the surveillance debate are critical.

To use, or not to use, social media

Responding to an audience question, Albert shares his tempered approach, why some easy steps like normalizing a culture of encryption are important and actionable, and why he and S.T.O.P. are focused on structural safeguards.

Watch the full conversation here and learn more about Albert here in Forbes. You can also follow him on Twitter: @FoxCahn and @STOPSpyingNY

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