Shankar Narayan is Technology and Liberty Project Director at the ACLU of Washington. He advocates, organizes, and litigates to protect civil liberties in a world transformed by technology. Shankar works to bring community values of fairness, transparency, and accountability to powerful surveillance and machine learning technologies, and to lift the voices of groups disproportionately impacted by such technologies, including communities of color, immigrants, religious and gender minorities, organizers and protesters, and others. Shankar has helped pass multiple landmark technology transparency and accountability laws, and continues to campaign for technology corporations to act in ethical and community-centric ways.
For the previous eight years, Shankar was Legislative Director at the ACLU of Washington. His program’s achievements include legislation to achieve marriage equality, restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated people, enforce non-discrimination laws in schools, improve police accountability, defeat punitive gang legislation, and protect privacy, among others.
Shankar was previously Policy Director at OneAmerica, where he worked on the frontlines of the immigrant rights struggle. Shankar also practiced technology law at K&L Gates. Shankar has served in leadership roles on Seattle’s Immigrant and Refugee Advisory Board, the Detention Watch Network, the South Asian Bar Association of Washington, the Asian Bar Association of Washington, and the Ethnic Diversity in the Legal Profession Committee. He graduated from Bates College, Yale Law School, and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Shankar was named King County Bar Association’s Outstanding Young Lawyer in 2010.
An immigrant, Shankar grew up in the Soviet Union, U.S., Maldives, India, Yugoslavia, Thailand, and Russia before coming to America for college. He enjoys the outdoors, travel, motorcycling, and Anatolian shepherds. A poet, he is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a recipient of fellowships and prizes from Kundiman, Hugo House, Flyway, Paper Nautilus, and 4Culture.
Shankar’s work aims to protect civil rights and civil liberties in the face of game-changing surveillance and automated decision-making technologies, particularly for the vulnerable communities most impacted by them. Companies such as Microsoft, Amazon, Google, and myriad other vendors are inventing and implementing new technologies faster than ever, but those technologies often built in a “black box” without community impacts or values in mind. And on the public side, government entities often adopt automated systems without adequate public input or oversight.
All this matters because these unaccountable, data-driven tools impact every critical decision about a person’s life—whether they will able to get hired for a job, admitted to college, rent a house, get credit, or obtain affordable insurance and health care. These tools influence how people are treated by police, whether they are labeled dangerous, whether they are arrested, whether they’re released or sit behind bars while their cases are pending, whether or not they’re convicted, and the length of their sentence. Frequently deployed without the public knowing about them, these tools often contain significant biases that are impossible to fix.
In the face of these challenges, Shankar’s work aims to both push back on the building of a surveillance infrastructure, and to ensure transparency, accountability, and fairness in both public and private sector technology deployments. With the leadership of a strong, statewide, multi-sector, diverse coalition of organizations, Shankar has helped pass landmark privacy laws at the state level (such as the first law nationwide to protect automotive data) and the local level (such as Seattle laws on transparency and accountability for surveillance technology, and protecting data collected by smart meters). Most recently, the coalition has taken public action to pressure Amazon to stop selling face surveillance technology to governments, sparking a worldwide movement to place limits on this technology; and has facilitated dialogue between tech companies and leaders from impacted communities on how to build technology in a more community-centric way.