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Keeping Uncle Sam from spying on citizens

As Center for Democracy and Technology lawyer, Greg Nojeim works to keep government from using national security as excuse to violate citizens' online privacy.

Greg Nojeim CDT

Editor's note: This is the third in a series of articles discussing how people in the tech industry are working with or around federal and state governments.

During the first Gulf War, Greg Nojeim went to Washington National Airport to observe Arab Americans being pulled out of lines and put through security checks that weren't required of other passengers. The evidence he gathered was used by his employer, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, to sue Pan Am World Airways on allegations of racial profiling.

Now an attorney with the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), he's still fighting attempts to use national security as a justification to violate people's constitutional rights and invade their privacy.

Specifically, he analyzes proposed legislation, lobbies and testifies before Congress, and provides advice to companies and the government on civil liberties issues that arise in the technology world to protect the privacy of consumer activities and communications.

"For about the last 15 years, my career has focused on the intersection of privacy, law enforcement and national security," Nojeim said. "When I started at the ACLU in 1995, it was just a few weeks after the Oklahoma City bombing. Wiretapping and government surveillance were at the center of my issue portfolio. And Congress has been focused on those issues for years."

Nojeim is director of the Project on Freedom, Security, and Technology at the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit CDT. He has tackled government data mining, the Patriot Act, and wireless wiretapping, working to limit the threat that surveillance by officials and law enforcement poses to consumer privacy. He brought together a coalition of groups that worked to remove proposals from a 1996 antiterrorism law that would have given law enforcement increased wiretap authority to access records without court orders and broaden the type of records accessed. Nojeim is concerned about the ramifications of a government policy that allows officials to eavesdrop on citizens without proper justification.

"Who wants to live in a world where the government can listen in on every communication without any evidence of crime?" he said. "The consequences of that are that people won't communicate freely and the country would be very different as a result. Imagine how your conversation with a close personal friend would change if you knew someone else was listening. That's what is at stake. That's what needs to be protected."

Nojeim also is bothered by possible side effects from new measures designed to improve the country's ability to fend off cyberattacks, particularly a proposal to allow a government agency to access information held by companies--even if protected by a privacy statute--when the agency believes the information is relevant to cybersecurity. This means the government could use a broad cybersecurity justification and ask ISPs and other service providers to turn over private e-mails of citizens. Officials are normally restricted by certain conditions such as requirements to provide probable cause that a crime was committed or access is otherwise warranted.

"I'm referring specifically to the Cybersecurity Act, which says that [the Department of] Commerce would become the new clearinghouse for cybersecurity information and that it could, in that role, gain access to that information notwithstanding any law," he said.

"Imagine how your conversation with a close personal friend would change if you knew someone else was listening. That's what is at stake. That's what needs to be protected."
--Greg Nojeim, CDT attorney

"It could force companies to release sensitive, confidential, and proprietary information to the government and it could force companies to release private information about consumers' communications to the government, as well," he added.

Officials and lawmakers aren't malicious or targeting average citizens, Nojeim said. They're just not thinking through the consequences of their proposals in their zeal to fight terrorism and prevent cyberattacks, he said. "Or, they don't put enough weight on the civil liberties interest at stake," he said.

Nojeim was born in 1959 in Syracuse, N.Y., to first-generation Lebanese-American parents. His mother worked as an accounts manager at a large corporation and his father worked on computers for the U.S. Air Force. The fourth of five sons, Nojeim was class president and valedictorian in high school and played soccer. He graduated from the University of Rochester in 1981 with a B.A. in political science. He went to law school at the University of Virginia and worked in mergers and acquisitions at a private firm after that, taking a break at one point to travel around the world for a year.

Collegiate advocacy
His interest in the nonprofit world began when he joined the American Civil Liberties Union in college. He later volunteered at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and then worked as the director of legal services there, conducting much of the group's work in the areas of immigration, civil, and human rights. When the office started getting calls from people complaining about racial profiling at airport security lines, he and other staffers spent hours at the airport to monitor the situation. The lawsuit filed against Pan Am was settled when the airline ceased flying due to its bankruptcy.

From there, Nojeim went to the ACLU, which had assisted the ADC with the airport profiling case. He worked at the ACLU for 12 years before joining the CDT in May 2007.

Nojeim is disappointed that the Patriot Act was passed while he was at the ACLU. The law dramatically expanded government power in the most dangerous ways for civil liberties, such as cutting down on judicial oversight of the exercise of investigative power and increasing the secrecy in which the powers are used, he said. For instance, before the act was passed, the FBI had to prove that hotel, car rental, and other records it sought for national security reasons pertained to the travel of a terrorist or spy. After the law was passed, the FBI can access records on anyone merely by showing that the records are relevant to an investigation. The Patriot Act also gives the FBI authority to conduct a secret search of a home or office for regular crimes and not just for foreign intelligence purposes.

But things might be turning around. The CDT and other civil liberties groups have been able to convince Congress to consider reforming a part of the law that gave the FBI the authority to issue "National Security Letters" (NSL) ordering ISPs and other types of businesses to turn over sensitive customer records. A measure before the U.S. House of Representatives would require that records sought with an NSL pertain to somebody who is either a terrorist or a spy or someone known to be in contact with a terrorist or spy, Nojeim said. For Americans with no ties to such individuals, the FBI can require a company to turn over its financial information and communications only after judicial review or with a subpoena in a criminal investigation, he said. The issue is likely to be resolved in the spring, he added.

"The Patriot Act changed the NSL statutes so that they can be used to seek records about anyone, not just about terrorists and spies and other 'agents of foreign powers,'" he said.

'Quiet warrior'
From his office a few blocks from the White House, Nojeim organizes the staff softball team and writes humorous reports on the team's activities when he's not doing the more serious work of trying to block the government from overstepping its authority.

"He's got a really off-beat sense of humor and he's a bit of a mischief maker in terms of the humor he shows to his colleagues," said Tim Sparapani, Facebook director of public policy, whom Nojeim hired at the ACLU. "He's doing deadly serious work and yet he sees the humor and the irony in a lot of situations, and that always makes his colleagues enjoy working with him."

"He's a very bright guy and coupled with that he's got a huge heart and a dedication to the law," said Albert Mokhiber, a lawyer at the firm of Mokhiber & Moretti and former president of the ADC who hired Nojeim to work there.

Nojeim is passionate about protecting individuals' constitutional rights but is also particularly effective working on issues that easily incite anger and strong emotion in others because he is measured and calm, his former colleagues said.

"This made him extremely useful for the work we were doing because there was a lot of emotion and passion in civil rights and human rights issues," Mokhiber said. "It has been very easy to violate civil and constitutional rights of Arab-Americans because there was this perception that we are the other; that we are the enemy, and that's not the case."

Nojeim stands out as a humble and relatively apolitical activist in a town noted for its egos and power games, according to Sparapani. "Greg is one of those quiet warriors," he said.

"He's probably the most important privacy advocate and Arab-American advocate that people don't know about. Greg does everything quietly behind the scenes," Sparapani said. "Greg was never somebody who needed to make friends in Washington. That helped him distinguish himself as an advocate. He calls them like he sees them."