Ben Wizner, who is perhaps best known as Edward Snowden’s lawyer, directs the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy & Technology Project. Wizner, who joined the ACLU in August 2001, one month before the 9/11 attacks, has been a force in the legal battles against torture, watch lists, and extraordinary rendition since the beginning of the global “war on terror.”
On October 15, we met with Wizner in an upstate New York pub to discuss the state of privacy advocacy today. In sometimes sardonic tones, he talked about the transition from litigating on issues of torture to privacy advocacy, differences between corporate and state-sponsored surveillance, recent developments in state legislatures and the federal government, and some of the obstacles impeding civil liberties litigation. The interview has been edited and abridged for publication.
Sagiv Galai and Tekendra Parmar: In her book On Violence, Hannah Arendt quotes Henry Steele Commager in talking about the boomerang effect of rule by violence in faraway lands, which could end by corrupting home governments: “If we subvert world order and destroy world peace we must inevitably subvert and destroy our own political institutions first.” Do you see a relationship between the assumptions in this quotation and your work?
Ben Wizner: It’s interesting—Chomsky has made the opposite observation about the United States. He has said there is almost an inverse relationship between the violence and depredations that the empire causes abroad and the relative peace, security, and freedom that we enjoy at home. I think that if you look at much of the last half-century, even as the United States was becoming one of the freer and safer societies in the history of the planet, it was involved in grotesque and violent abuses abroad, either directly as in Vietnam or indirectly with proxies in Central America and other places. So I don’t see a straight line like the way that quote implies.
I will say this, though: Many of the technologies, both military technologies and surveillance technologies, that are developed for purposes of policing the empire find their way back home and get repurposed. You saw this in Ferguson, where we had military equipment in the streets to police nonviolent civil unrest, and we’re seeing this with surveillance technologies, where things that are deployed for use in war zones are now commonly in the arsenals of local police departments. For example, a cellphone surveillance tool that we call the StingRay—which mimics a cellphone tower and communicates with all the phones around—was really developed as a military technology to help identify targets. Now, because it’s so inexpensive, and because there is a surplus of these things that are being developed, it ends up getting pushed down into local communities without local democratic consent or control.