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2019 Online Commentary finalist

The Privacy Project

About the Project

The Cambridge Analytica scandal — secretly using social media to try to sway an election — was a watershed moment for many Americans concerned about their privacy rights in the digital age. Polling suggests that public anxiety about privacy is growing, as daily reports of data breaches reveal how much information we’ve already traded away — and how vulnerable we can find ourselves when it’s exposed.

Officials in city halls, state capitals and Washington are considering new rules to protect Americans’ privacy. Industry leaders are scrambling to influence that debate and to rewrite their own rules. Europe has passed privacy legislation. California has passed its own version of a privacy law that could become the de facto national standard when it goes into force in January.

In the midst of these swirling currents around the issue of privacy, The Times launched a first-of-its-kind effort to both educate the public and influence the national conversation around privacy and technology in three areas: online tracking, genetics and facial recognition.

The monthslong initiative — The Privacy Project — explores the technology, envisions where it’s taking us and convenes debate about how we should control it to best realize, rather than stunt or distort, human flourishing. The Privacy Project includes work from both the Opinion and Editorial departments and the newsroom, and is organized in three phases: education, debate and calls to action. It also includes a critical look at The Times’s (and other media outlets’) relationship with the data economy.

In the 63 days between the launch of the project on April 10 and the deadline for this award, The Privacy Project published 67 pieces. Those articles included op-eds from academics and lawyers, a comedian and a priest, tech evangelists and digital doomsayers. The newsroom contributed a major investigation on Google, tracking and the police. A founder of Facebook called for the company to be broken up. A former Google engineer called for more conscientious objectors in his profession. The editorial board examined the state of national privacy legislation. The Times podcast “The Daily” explored how the police are using genealogy to solve crimes. The interactive team built an inexpensive facial-recognition machine with a public camera in Bryant Park and turned it on the public, and an interactive survey asked readers where they would draw the line on privacy questions. The project includes a glossary of technical terms, a bibliography of related reading and a Twitter account dedicated to sharing work not only published under the project’s auspices but also from other media outlets covering the topic. A weekly newsletter explores issues of the day, dives into the archives to scrutinize past coverage of the issue and provides subscribers with tips and answers to their questions.