Compliance Management, Privacy

Civil liberties lawyer arguing against the NSA spying programs


Although she spent several years as a criminal defense attorney, defending “all kinds” of interesting characters, Jennifer Stisa Granick, the director of civil liberties at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society (CIS), says her current role is the most exciting she has ever had.

It all started when she began defending people accused of computer crimes, “because it seemed interesting.” At that point – in the 1990s – computer law was in its embryonic form. “My mother didn't have any idea what I did,” says Granick, and there was a widely held belief that the internet was “unregulatable.”

Much has changed. “My mother now owns an iPad and experience has proven that the internet can be regulated, both for better and for worse,” she says. Most critically, the internet age has increasingly put civil liberties – privacy, in particular – at center stage.

Granick, who is currently working on a book about the NSA, earned a law degree and cut her teeth on the evolving state of cyber law as the civil liberties director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and in a previous stint at Stanford, where she was executive director of CIS and taught cyber law, computer crime law, internet intermediary liability and internet law and policy. In 2007, O'Reilly Media released Security Powertools, which she co-authored. She also briefly defended internet activist Aaron Swartz after his arrest for downloading articles from JSTOR, while also challenging the scope of the law under which he was prosecuted.

Jennifer Stisa Granick

Age: 44 

Occupation: attorney, security and privacy activist College: New College of the University of South Florida, undergraduate degree; University of California, Hastings College of the Law, JD

Accomplishments: Author, pioneer computer law practitioner, director of civil liberties at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society (CIS)

“So much internet policy is about where society draws the line between competing values,” she says. On one hand, the technology is revolutionary in its ability to give people power to be creative and disrupt conventional ways of doing things. “How much of that is helpful and how much is dangerous could be asked regarding topics as diverse as copyright, free speech and surveillance,” she says.

However, it was the revelations about government surveillance made public by Edward Snowden that have brought urgency and clarity to her work. “I have followed this area extensively and anyone who knows anything about these issues was very surprised by what has come out,” says Granick. “We knew from other whistleblowers that there were some shocking things happening. But Snowden provided the context, sense of scale and, above all, the documents, so government could no longer deny these activities,” she says.

“Many of us had some idea that government was collecting phone calls, but we didn't have any idea it was on every single American for the last seven years, and that is truly shocking,” she adds.  Likewise, says Granick, it was widely understood that government could collect emails and chats with people overseas, but the scale, as revealed by Snowden, was dumbfounding. “We knew it was a possibility. We had no idea of the extent,” she says.

Among Granick's responses to the Snowden revelations was an opinion piece “The Criminal NSA,” which she co-authored with Professor Christopher Sprigman and published in the New York Times earlier in the year. The article focused on what she believes is the flimsy legal basis on which the NSA spying programs, including PRISM, and the collection of phone metadata are conducted.

“In terms of drawing those lines between competing interests, society needs to be able to evolve, but there are a lot of things very wrong with the way things are currently,” she says.

In particular, Granick questions the assumptions that underlie government surveillance. “There is no mathematical equation where you increase surveillance and thereby increase security. What we have found is that NSA has collaborated with business to put backdoors in products. These backdoors make all of us less secure and create opportunities for thieves to steal information,” she says. Furthermore, she says when there is “an imbalance of information between the government and the people, it makes people less safe and less secure.”

“I think government needs to be a positive force, but it has become a negative force,” she adds. 

“We, as a society have built an infrastructure for mass surveillance and we are at a tipping point. It is time for our society to say whether this is the world we want to live in and if not, we need to dismantle that infrastructure,” she says.

Granick says her book on the NSA is aimed at the general public and will explain in accurate and simple terms what the NSA is doing with phone calls, emails and other personal data: “Why we should care and what we can do about it.” Although no publisher has yet been determined, Granick says, “I'm looking for the book to come out before the November midterm elections.”

And, Granick says she is an optimist. “I think that this country was born on the idea of individual freedom and liberty and that when people understand that what the NSA is doing is revolutionary and it affects innocent people all over the world, I believe they will reject that.”

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