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