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Facebook Recruits Surveillance Hawk To Be Its Top Lawyer


Facebook has recruited a surveillance hawk to be its next top lawyer. She helped craft the Patriot Act. That was the controversial law that ushered in a new era of government surveillance of citizens. Privacy advocates who follow Facebook closely are baffled by this. But as NPR's Aarti Shahani reports, the new hire could help the company improve relations with another set of critics.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: There is no need to point out that Jennifer Newstead went to Harvard undergrad, Yale Law right after. Of course she did. In addition to her pristine pedigree, she is a Lean In woman, descended from three generations of leaning in. Her grandmother was a doctor.


JENNIFER NEWSTEAD: My mother has spent her medical career pioneering new technologies to diagnose cancer in women.

SHAHANI: That was Newstead in late 2017 before the Senate. President Trump nominated her to be top lawyer for the State Department - the first woman in that position. Very little about her legal philosophy came out at the confirmation hearing. Though she did make clear, she is a staunch supporter of executive power. Asked if it would be OK, in theory, for the president to attack North Korea - even if they didn't attack us and even if Congress did not authorize use of military force - Newstead said, in essence, yes, pre-emptive strikes are OK.


NEWSTEAD: It's my view that the law generally provides the president may act to defend the United States.

SHAHANI: Newstead is now changing bosses, leaving Trump for Mark Zuckerberg. She leaves the State Department with a wealth of contacts around the world. That should prove useful for Facebook, whose users are mostly outside the U.S. Newstead is also uniquely qualified to help Facebook with privacy; specifically, pushing the limits of law to dismantle privacy.

TIMOTHY EDGAR: You could say she's really one of the legal architects of our modern digital mass surveillance society.

SHAHANI: Timothy Edgar came to know Newstead years ago after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. He was an advocate at the American Civil Liberties Union. She was at the Justice Department.

EDGAR: Jennifer Newstead was, you know, one of the smartest lawyers that you could imagine, in a very elite group.

SHAHANI: Her group was the nerve center of America's post-9/11 legal architecting. They laid the groundwork for the government to collect mass data - telephone records, Internet metadata - and to search without consent in terrorism cases. We're now in a new era, where surveillance is conducted by companies. Facebook is under immense scrutiny. Just yesterday, Senator Ron Wyden sent a letter urging regulators to hold CEO Zuckerberg individually accountable or his flagrant, repeated violations of Americans' privacy will continue. Tim Wu figured Facebook would hire someone who was the opposite of Newstead.

TIM WU: I was a little shocked, taken aback.

SHAHANI: Wu, a law professor at Columbia University, once met the incoming Facebook lawyer at a party. They'd both clerked for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, and he was the host. Wu is a privacy advocate. He says Facebook needs to clean up its reputation, prove to users the company wants to protect them - by bringing in a Patriot Act architect.

WU: It's too easy to connect the dots and say, well, she did surveillance for the federal government. Now she's taking over surveillance at Facebook.

SHAHANI: That said, he does have an educated guess about why the hire makes sense - to deal with governmental pressure. Yes, governments criticize Facebook for privacy violations. But they also knock on Facebook's door when they want user data, to investigate, for example, terrorists or activists. Government requests have grown steadily each year. Wu worries that Jennifer Newstead will turn users into bargaining chips to help Facebook curry political favor.

WU: I can't say I look forward to Facebook cooperating with government. That's one of the things I've always been concerned with.

SHAHANI: In Facebook's announcement, chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg praised the new hire for her global perspective and made no mention of the surveillance expertise.


SHAHANI: Aarti Shahani, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: April 24, 2019 at 12:00 AM EDT
In a previous Web introduction to this story, Jennifer Newstead's last name was mistakenly given as Gillian.
Aarti Shahani is a correspondent for NPR. Based in Silicon Valley, she covers the biggest companies on earth. She is also an author. Her first book, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares (out Oct. 1, 2019), is about the extreme ups and downs her family encountered as immigrants in the U.S. Before journalism, Shahani was a community organizer in her native New York City, helping prisoners and families facing deportation. Even if it looks like she keeps changing careers, she's always doing the same thing: telling stories that matter.
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