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Facebook’s new chief lawyer helped write the Patriot Act

Facebook’s new chief lawyer helped write the Patriot Act


‘Jennifer is a seasoned leader whose global perspective and experience will help us fulfill our mission,’ says Sheryl Sandberg

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Jennifer Newstead, a Trump appointee who served in the Justice Department under President Bush, will soon be taking over as general counsel of Facebook, the company announced in a press release on Monday afternoon. Newstead will take over from Colin Stretch, who announced plans to retire last year.

“Jennifer is a seasoned leader whose global perspective and experience will help us fulfill our mission,” Sheryl Sandberg said in a statement included with the release.

But many are already troubled by Newstead’s history lobbying and legislating for more powerful electronic surveillance. As The Hill points out, a 2002 Justice Department press release describes her as “helping craft” the legislation. Notorious Bush administration lawyer John Yoo described her as the “day-to-day manager of the Patriot Act in Congress” in his 2006 book.

Passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Patriot Act greatly expanded the scope of the government’s surveillance powers, enabling new techniques like roving wiretaps and so-called “sneak-and-peek” warrants. Section 215 of the Patriot Act was used to justify the bulk collection of telephone records from US carriers, although both the ruling and the legal interpretation that justified it remained secret until the Snowden leaks.

Most relevant for Facebook, the Patriot Act also initiated the practice of so-called “national security letters,” in which intelligence agencies informally request specific data without the authorization of a court or judge, citing threats to national security.

Facebook is still actively dealing with these data demands, which have only escalated since NSA collection activities became public. Facebook received more than 32,000 requests for data from US law enforcement in the second half of 2018, and content from more than 20,000 accounts was requested by the FISA court over the same period. Little is known about the details of those requests, which are often subject to strict gag orders.

As general counsel, Newstead will be in a unique position to either block or enable those requests — and her professional history suggests she may be more sympathetic to the government’s security mandate than users’ desire for privacy.

Newstead will work closely with Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s head of global policy. A prominent conservative, Kaplan drew ire from many Facebook employees last year when he appeared as a guest at the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh.