Ada Lovelace Day hero: Cindy Cohn

Happy Ada Lovelace Day! Today is the day when bloggers around the world celebrate women in technology who have inspired them.

My Ada Lovelace hero this year is Cindy Cohn, the Legal Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Cindy is a litigator, which means that she really, really understands how to construct an argument (and how to demolish someone else's argument). She was my co-worker at EFF for half a decade and remains a dear friend, and I can't count the number of times I've had my mind changed for the better by Cindy's principled, reasoned, civil libertarian stands on technology.

I remember a lunch with Cindy, before I went to EFF, where we talked about DRM (I was for it -- Cindy is one of the people who helped me understand why DRM was a bad idea). I had what I thought of as a pretty reasonable position: creators could offer deals to the public and they'd be able to pick which deals were good ones and which were bad ones. Cindy took me through the illegitimacy of a vendor declaring that something that was a sale -- as defined in law -- was, in fact, a contract, where all the buyer's rights went away. I walked away from that lunch a changed man.

Cindy argued the famous Bernstein case, where the principle that code is a form of expressive speech, protected by the First Amendment, was established in law. Specifically, Bernstein got rid of the NSA's ban on publishing, using and disseminating strong crypto (they said that any scrambling system that the cops couldn't descramble was a munition and had to be regulated accordingly). Today, every purchase you make online, every ATM you use, every private email you send or receive -- everything you do that has some element of privacy! -- is legal because of Cindy's ability to convey nuanced technical arguments to nontechnical lawmakers.

I've been privileged in my life to know many astute technologists, policy people, and activists, but few who combine brilliance in all three realms the way Cindy does. She could go into private practice in a heartbeat and increase her salary by 5-10X, but for more than a decade, she's stayed at EFF, pulling long hours and working under tough conditions to make a difference in the world.

Happy Ada Lovelace Day, Cindy!

Ada Lovelace Day


  1. Thanks, Cory, for giving Cindy her day in the spotlight! It’s too easy to overlook the people who work in the background making our lives better and protecting our rights. It’s one thing to redress past wrongs, but to litigate with such a keen eye on the future is a special talent. We’re lucky to have people like Cindy out there!

  2. Yay! She deserves to be the “Ada Lovelace Day” recipient every day.

    On “publishing, using and disseminating strong crypto”, I hadn’t heard of this president; that’s great.

    But, it doesn’t mean the government (or powerful interests like corporations) aren’t trying to crack strong incriptions, or don’t succeeded going forward – it just means they have to get a warrant to bring such evidence to court.

    So heads up everyone – they can watch everything you do on line.

    Your freedom of speech is protected by a system of checks and balances: the judiciary protects your rights by interpreting presidents in the history of law and applying it in specific cases. Legislators in Congress pass laws that represent your interests (*). For the most part it works.

    I bring this up because sometimes people adopt a belief set that stems from television crime drama version of the law (which more and more I’ve noticed, fails to represent best practices of accused, and subsequent events and processes). A simple understanding of these issues can amount to no understanding at all.

    I’ve recently started keeping up with events through an RSS feed from EFF in my your browser.

  3. We always need more women in science and tech, thanks Cory.

    I have my own Ada Lovelace story. My friend and I were hiking through Exmoor National Park last summer, and as night fell we approached some stone ruins in the forest, a sprawl of walls, tunnels, and towers perching on the edge of the sea cliffs. We camped there for the night, and later discovered it was the remains of Ada Lovelace’s house. I only have one picture because the light was fading and we had to set up camp quickly:

  4. Cindy is one of the most amazing people in the free speech technology movement, and a role model for me as a women in the field.

    Thanks for honoring her work to keep the Internet free and accessible, and for keeping us alert and active on privacy and net neutrality issues.

    Thanks, Cindy for all you do!!


  5. Hmm…I always thought that Ada Lovelace was just the porn actress from Deep Throat. Who’d have thought she’d be the namesake of a Women in Technology title?

  6. Sure, “she could go into private practice in a heartbeat and increase her salary by 5-10X…” but then she’d have to live with a stank that even hour-long showers won’t wash away. Instead, she’s a ROCKSTAR and we all sleep a bit easier at night because people like her are fighting the good fight. Brava! and THANK YOU.

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