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Two Boston tech leaders fund ACLU privacy project

Two luminaries of the Boston tech community have contributed $1 million to launch an initiative at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts meant to safeguard privacy in an era when government agencies have greater access than ever before to personal data.

The initial donation from Paul Sagan, former chief executive officer of the Internet services company Akamai Technologies Inc., and Joshua Boger, founder of Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc., will help fund the Technology for Liberty & Justice for All project. The initiative will examine how rapid advancements in technology and the pervasiveness of the Web could be used to impinge upon individual civil liberties.

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The effort will initially focus on such hot topics as the government’s use of drones for surveillance and how police departments obtain information about people by tapping into data logged on smartphones or searching through private e-mails.

In addition to research, the project may pursue legal action. It may also advocate for changes to existing policies and the creation of new safeguards.

“There aren’t enough people on the technology side supporting critical looks at what this means for our society,” said Boger, now the executive chairman of Alkeus Pharmaceuticals Inc. of Boston. “We need the best minds on this.”

Over the past several years, the ACLU of Massachusetts has increasingly focused on issues of surveillance and privacy. Last year, the organization released a report charging the Boston Police Department with improperly monitoring and storing information on antiwar activists.

But the new project marks the first time the ACLU is bringing together business executives and its own lawyers and researchers together on a project of this nature. The ­donation from Boger and ­Sagan is the largest ever to the ACLU from members of the technology community in ­Massachusetts.

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“It makes sense that we would be innovating on this here in Massachusetts because it’s a center for technology and science,” said Carol Rose, ­executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “This is an opportunity to really be on the cutting edge of thinking about new ways to defend civil ­liberties.”

In many cases, she said, laws meant to protect privacy are lagging far behind technology. Rose said the ACLU was concerned about how often government agencies asked Web companies such as Google Inc. for information about users. She said it was increasingly worrisome how law enforcement agencies deployed advanced techniques known as “predictive policing,” which uses computer algorithms to forecast potential criminal activity.

“It’s not that the technology is always good or bad, the ­question is how the technology is used,” she said. “Suddenly we have a 21st-century challenge brought about by new ­technology.”

Boger and Sagan, both longtime supporters of the ACLU, are encouraging other members of the business community to help fund the project. In addition to their donation, they will match other contributions to the project, up to a maximum of $1 million.

It’s critical that technology innovators have a key role in the discussion around privacy and civil liberties, said Sagan, who is still an Akamai board member. “If the decisions are all made by lawyers and ­government bureaucrats,” he said, “you are leaving out the most informed constituents.”

Michael B. Farrell
can be reached at ­­
michael.farrell@globe.com
.

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