The way Alastair Mactaggart usually tells the story of his awakening — the way he told it even before he became the most improbable, and perhaps the most important, privacy activist in America — begins with wine and pizza in the hills above Oakland, Calif. It was a few years ago, on a night Mactaggart and his wife had invited some friends over for dinner. One was a software engineer at Google, whose search and video sites are visited by over a billion people a month. As evening settled in, Mactaggart asked his friend, half-seriously, if he should be worried about everything Google knew about him. “I expected one of those answers you get from airline pilots about plane crashes,” Mactaggart recalled recently. “You know — ‘Oh, there’s nothing to worry about.’ ” Instead, his friend told him there was plenty to worry about. If people really knew what we had on them, the Google engineer said, they would flip out.
The language of the resulting ballot initiative, which Mactaggart finalized last November, reflected lessons from the painful failure of Obama privacy’s initiative. It wasn’t called a “bill of rights.” And on its face, it was not a frontal attack on the giants of Silicon Valley. Mactaggart’s proposal instead took aim at the so-called third-party market for personal data, in which companies trade and sell your information to one another, mostly without your knowing about it.
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