Ben Wizner

Director, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project. Lawyer for Edward Snowden



Ben Wizner@benwizner · ACLU attorney, Snowden lawyer
Hi – I’m Ben Wizner. I’ve been an ACLU lawyer for almost 15 years, working at the intersection of civil liberties and national security. I’ve been involved in all manner of post-9/11 cases, including challenges to airport security policies, government watch lists, surveillance practices, targeted killings, and torture. Most recently, I’ve been the principal legal advisor to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. I’m glad to be here – ask me anything!
Chris Sacca@sacca · Chairman, Lowercase Capital
Why should Snowden and a bunch of journalists, and not the officials we elected, get to decide what the public should or shouldn’t know?
Ben Wizner@benwizner · ACLU attorney, Snowden lawyer
@sacca That’s a really important question. I’m going to take some to answer it.
Ben Wizner@benwizner · ACLU attorney, Snowden lawyer
@sacca Your framing has intuitive appeal. The tension between the public’s right to know, and the government’s legitimate security concerns, is a real one. If someone has to resolve that tension, why not people whom we actually elected, instead of bunch of people who appointed themselves? To begin to answer that, let’s try a thought experiment. Over the last decade and half, what if the public had only learned what our elected officials wanted us to learn? We would not have known that the case for war in Iraq was based on exaggerations (at best) and outright falsehoods (more accurately). We would not have seen images of American soldiers torturing and sexually humiliating prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. We would not have learned that the CIA kidnapped foreign citizens off the streets and “rendered” them to a network of secret prisons, where they were subjected to so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” (i.e., torture). We would not have known that the Bush Administration ordered the NSA to eavesdrop on Amercain citizens in direct violation of federal law. We would not have known any of the information revealed by the media through the Snowden documents – information that has led to historic legal reforms. All of this information was classified at the very highest levels. It would be hard to argue that our democracy would be stronger if we didn’t know it. The point is, the framers of our Constitution knew that government officials would conceal information from the public for the wrong reasons -- to avoid embarrassment and accountability, not to protect the country. That’s why the put the protection of the freedom of the press into the First Amendment. And to do its job, the press has always relied on people who have access to secrets who are willing to take risks to educate the public. Woodward and Bernstein needed Deep Throat; Greenwald, Poitras and Gellman needed Snowden. That doesn’t mean that everyone in Snowden's position should just take it on himself to dump material onto the internet. I think the way that Snowden acted was the best way: he entrusted the decisions about what should or should not be published to news organizations that had experience in making those judgments. The number of documents that Snowden himself published was, and remains, zero.
Ben Wizner@benwizner · ACLU attorney, Snowden lawyer
@sacca Also, on a personal note, thanks again for your strong public support for Snowden.
Ben Wizner@benwizner · ACLU attorney, Snowden lawyer
@sacca One more thing to add here: I HIGHLY recommend these lectures that SNowden journalist Bart Gellman delivered at Princeton in 2003: I've never read a better defense of the role of whistleblowers and the press.
Jason Coombs, CEO@jasoncoombsceo · @Risk_Nerd @Forensics_Inc @PublicStartup
@benwizner @sacca since before 9/11 the FBI and other federal agencies have been employing "computer forensics" now known as "cyber forensics" in an increasing number and range of criminal prosecutions and of course on the battlefield or in special ops situations like the killing of bin Laden. I have worked as an expert witness in this field since the 1990s and I have seen the importance of, and our nation's growing dependence on, this new field of forensics -- however, I have also seen, repeatedly, actually (disturbingly) in EVERY case of criminal prosecution brought to court where this technology has been used, in practice the government lies in order to win. Have you encountered this phenomenon also and if so what are you able to say about it publicly or what are you planning to do to get at the root of this problem and help to repair the defective unscientific practices currently being used in the name of "forensic science" in order to ensure that prosecutors more easily win legal cases?
Niv Dror@nivo0o0 · VC at Shrug Capital
Hey Ben! Thanks for joining us. Do you see Edward Snowden ever being able to make it back to the United States? (without facing charges)
Ben Wizner@benwizner · ACLU attorney, Snowden lawyer
@nivo0o0 I'll say this: history is kind to whistleblowers, and it's much less kind to exaggerated claims of national security. 40 years ago, Daniel Ellsberg was vilified as a traitor; today, he is almost universally revered as a hero. I don't think it will take 40 years in the desert for Snowden. Around the world, and by by many in the US (particularly younger people), Snowden is rightly viewed as a courageous human rights defender. I do expect to see him home some day.
Andrew Ettinger@andrewett · 👟 @wearAtoms // ex @Twitter @ProductHunt
1) How did you and Mr. Snowden get in contact? 2) What kind of due diligence did you do before agreeing to be his legal advisor?
Ben Wizner@benwizner · ACLU attorney, Snowden lawyer
@andrewett We were introduced by the journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras (both of whom I'd known for many years). Keep in mind, this occurred only after many of the stories had been published and Snowden had introduced himself to the world (in other words, I learned his name at the same time you did). He didn't come to me (or any lawyer) before he embarked on his journey, but only later. So by the time we connected in July of 2013, I'd already seen more than a month of media coverage of the documents, and I had a good sense of his goals and motivations. I also had two old friends (Greenwald and Poitras) who were able to vouch for him in the strongest possible terms. Even so, the ACLU took on this representation only after we were able to have extended direct conversations about Snowden's goals and the proper scope of our work together. And it's been a privilege to be by his side during his historic journey.
Danny Fiorentini@dannyfiorentini · Founder of @MuzeekHQ
Hey Ben, thanks for everything you fight for. In your opinion, what's more important regarding the future of humanity and our relationship with the Internet?: a.) the global transparency & "discovery of truth" between human beings, which can place others in public "check" (e.g. Panama Papers); or b.) the capabilities of encryption & protecting private information, which prevents that from happening (e.g. preventing FBI/NSA abuse) For example: Laura Poitras noted that "going public" about her US Customs harassment prevented future harassment. I thought this was an interesting dichotomy, in that both privacy and transparency worked in unison to achieve a similar goal. Is protecting privacy an integral of public transparency, or the other way around?
Ben Wizner@benwizner · ACLU attorney, Snowden lawyer
@dannyfiorentini Asking a civil libertarian to choose between fundamental rights is like asking a parent to choose between children... But let me try to turn this around. I think transparency and privacy are two sides of the same coin. We want our governments and elite institutions to be more transparent, and we want individuals and activists to have more privacy. Unfortunately, in recent years we've seen something like the revers. (Aristotle wrote that when government knows everything about citizens, and citizens know little about government, that's tyranny. When citizens know everything about government, and government knows little about citizens, that's democracy.) We'll need strong tools to protect individual privacy, particularly in repressive regimes. And we'll need transparency as a disinfectant.
Erik Torenberg@eriktorenberg · Former Product Hunt
Ben! thanks for joining us. What is something you used to fundamentally believe that you now see as fervently misguided?
Ben Wizner@benwizner · ACLU attorney, Snowden lawyer
@eriktorenberg Thanks for inviting me. I'm going to give a slightly sideways answer.... When I was a burning young idealist, I thought only fundamental, sweeping, structural change was worth pursuing. I didn't want to fix "the system"; I wanted to replace it. I have some fondness for that younger self, and quite a bit of sympathy, but over time I've come to appreciate incrementalism, for lack of a better word. "Democracy" is not a problem that can be solved; it's something that has to be worked on, constantly, with frequent advances and setbacks.
Andreas Klinger@andreasklinger · Tech at Product Hunt 💃
Did you or your team receive implicit/explicit threats? Are there any things happening around you that 10 years ago you would have just brushed off as paranoia?
Ben Wizner@benwizner · ACLU attorney, Snowden lawyer
@andreasklinger I can say that we get letters that are not exactly love letters.... But on the whole I can say that there is no safer place on the planet to do the work I'm doing, and I feel very privileged to be able to live and work in this society.
Jacqueline von Tesmar@jacqvon · Community at Product Hunt ⚡️
How do you respond to those who say they “have nothing to hide”?
Ben Wizner@benwizner · ACLU attorney, Snowden lawyer
@jacqvon Snowden has a really nice answer to this. He says that saying we don't need privacy because we have nothing to hide is like saying we don't need free speech because we have nothing say. What he's trying to get at is that these are collective, not just individual, rights. Even if you're not likely to say something terribly controversial, you probably still understand the need for a free press that can challenge powerful institutions. Likewise with privacy, even if you yourself are not likely to be targeted by coercive government surveillance, you should be concerned about the the government having unchecked power to target people or groups that are more controversial. (Look at how J. Edgar Hoover used the FBI during his 50-year reign as director....) I sometimes say that the "nothing to hide" framework is the wrong answer to the wrong question. It's the wrong answer because we all, of course, have plenty to hide. (I doubt you would give me your email passwords; you probably close the door when you use the bathroom; etc.). And it's the wrong question because privacy is not ultimately about secrecy; it's about autonomy and dignity and power and control. We should be able to share things with some people without sharing them with everyone; we should not have important decisions made about us based on hidden big-data analytics that we'll never have a chance to see or challenge....
Ayrton De Craene@ayrton · Code @ Product Hunt
What’s the most compelling thing you’ve done in your career, unrelated to Snowden?
Ben Wizner@benwizner · ACLU attorney, Snowden lawyer
@ayrton When I was in law school in the late 90s, I was able to help a Louisiana prisoner named Wilbert Rideau overturn a 40+-yr-old conviction; he was later released from prison. Rideau, who had committed a serious crime as a teenager, had gone on to become an award-winning prison journalist and had been described by Life magazine as "the most rehabilitated prisoner in America." When I started working on the case, I said that if were ever released I would have to leave law and go to cooking school, because I'd never be able to match the experience. Wilbert later released me from that pledge, and I'm glad he did.... (Here's a link to the book he wrote after his release:
Frank Nolan@frank_j_nolan
When it comes to net neutrality what would be the best way for a balance to exist between privacy and censorship so innovation and normal internet users can flourish for both the benefit of our world economy, safety and education, etc?
Paul Rafferty@studi_budi · CEO and Founder of StudiBudi LTD
What is your idea of the perfect system of government and if you could change one thing about the US government structure or methods, what would it be?
Kiki Schirr / 史秀玉@kikischirr · Founder, WeKiki Video Chat Platform
Is there any current injustice you see that you've been itching to tackle? Thank you for answering our questions, and for being a champion of liberty.
Jake Crump@jakecrump · Community Team with Product Hunt
You mention you’re involvement in issues such as torture. What is your stance on torture?
James Campbell@jcampbell_05 · Founder,
What can we do as citizens of the web to act against injustices such as these ? Can we do anything? or are we already stuck in a system we can't control that is bigger than you or I ?
Ben Tossell@bentossell · newCo
Where does surveillance rank on the list of America's most pressing issues?
Ben Wizner@benwizner · ACLU attorney, Snowden lawyer
@bentossell I'm not sure I have a good answer to this. It would be easy to argue that there are more urgent concerns -- including climate change, widening income inequality, wars without end.... The problem is that with mass surveillance, we might not know how bad things are until it's too late to change them. Imagine the machinery that the NSA has developed. Now imagine it in the hands of an authoritarian, unstable leader. (Now look at our presidential election.......) I would say this: I'm very concerned by the trends. Surveillance and storage are getting cheaper. The tools that belong only to elite spy agencies will soon be in the hands of local cops everywhere. If we don't get a handle on the problem now, it may be much harder to roll back alter.
Emily Hodgins@ems_hodge · Operations @ Product Hunt
During your career to date, what one thing has shocked you the most?
beltran@lyricalpolymath · co-founder +
In an ideal world, what would a good government structure look like so that we wouldn't have to argue about these things? How do we fix the power without control bugs in our democracy?
Ben Wizner@benwizner · ACLU attorney, Snowden lawyer
@lyricalpolymath See my answer to Erik Torenberg above... This is a conversation I often have with technologists, who tend to believe that problems have solutions. If government isn't working, how do we fix it? But when it comes to state power, inefficiencies are a feature, not a bug. The Bill of Rights is anti-efficiency, anti-accuracy document: it exists to make things more difficult, not easier, for government. There's a lot of wisdom in that approach. There's no plausible way to automate government, and even if there were, we wouldn't like it (how much do you like red-light cameras?). That means that government will be made up of people, and people have predictable tendencies: to accumulate power, to hide wrongdoing, etc. I think the best we can do is to try to empower the institutions in society that act as a check on aggregated power: the press, civil society orgs like the ACLU, and more recently even large technology companies like Apple. But I don't think we can take the bugs out of democracy.
Danny Fiorentini@dannyfiorentini · Founder of @MuzeekHQ
@benwizner @lyricalpolymath I love this answer because it's often neglected or forgotten that in the U.S., the Constitution specifically limits the government's actions, and not the other way around, for a reason. Many people assume the "ills" of society are cause by lack of government efficiency when it's literally the opposite.
Frank Nolan@frank_j_nolan
Would neighborhoods be safer from crime if they all had security camera's; including the ones that some people use in their driveways?
Ben Wizner@benwizner · ACLU attorney, Snowden lawyer
@frank_j_nolan I think the best available evidence shows that security cameras are not all that effective in preventing crime (though they can be fairly effective in solving it after the fact). But let's take this a little further. Would we be safer from crime if drones fitted with Argus cameras flew over all of our cities 24 hours a day, creating a complete record of all human activity? If we put cameras in our homes in bedrooms? If we allowed police to enter our homes without warning or warrants? The answer to all of these questions might be yes, but we have to ask ourselves at what cost. The people who wrote our Constitution were more worried about a government with that kind of power than they were about some crimes going unsolved...
Kirsty Styles@kirstystyles1 · Reporter, The Next Web
Do you worry that people will stop engaging with issues like encryption, surveillance etc because they just don't feel like they can do anything about it? What would you say to people who feel like that?
Ben Wizner@benwizner · ACLU attorney, Snowden lawyer
@kirstystyles1 I do worry that people will feel that the scope of the challenges we face is too great, and our ability to influence events too small. (And not just for mass surveillance, but for a whole range of challenges like global war, climate change, economic inequality, etc). I still love the famous quote from the anthropologist Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." When I have moments of doubt about whether the work the ACLU is doing is having a sufficient impact, I imagine what the country would look like if there had never been an ACLU, and it's enough to push me forward...
Kirsty Styles@kirstystyles1 · Reporter, The Next Web
@benwizner we have that quote on a poster in our flat :)
Mederinho@mederinho10 · Financial Strategist
What do you think is Putin's motivation behind giving asylum to Snowden?