Nate Cardozo’s house is filled with gadgets that do things they were never intended to do.
For instance, before it was offered as a feature, Nate figured out how to play Audible books over his wireless Sonos speakers. He shared the solution online for others who wanted to listen to books while moving about their home.
Nate’s a hacker in the old-school conception of the word. He relishes a good challenge. “I’ve always had a technology obsession,” he says. When he looks at something, he often thinks about what it could be — the potential. Making the vision a reality typically starts with finding a way inside the system.
That spirit goes far in explaining how a long-time advocate of digital privacy — and outspoken critic of Facebook — suddenly finds himself in charge of privacy at WhatsApp, a subsidiary of Facebook, and changing company culture from within.
The Digital Frontier
Nate’s family got their first computer in the early 1980s when he was two. By high school, he was working as a web designer for the city of Santa Monica.
“I’d been a computer nerd growing up,” he recalls. “And I became interested in the free-speech, wild west that was the internet in the ‘90s. I got into internet culture.”
As a teenager, Nate was drawn to a fledgling nonprofit called Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) that was working to defend civil liberties in the digital world. “EFF was, at the time, really the only organization in the country doing digital rights and online free speech work.”
EFF would play a defining role in Nate’s career. Still a young student, he found it was a gateway to the realm of legal matters, connecting his experience of the digital world with a budding sense of justice.
By the time he was in college at the University of California, Santa Cruz in the early 2000s, where he majored in anthropology and politics, Nate was volunteering at California Rural Legal Assistance and working on behalf of low-income individuals and communities. Feeling the pull of a legal career, he took a paralegal job after graduation at a nearby San Jose law firm to confirm his interest before committing to law school.
Turning Lemons into Legal Aid
Nate graduated cum laude from University of California, Hastings College of Law just in time for the Great Recession of 2008.
He’d been a summer associate at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman in 2007, and they duly brought him on as an associate in the Fall of 2008, but there wasn’t much to do. His entire first-year class was let go.
“We were given the choice between a three-month severance or a one-year fellowship at a nonprofit,” Nate says. He decided to pursue a fellowship at EFF. “It had always been a fantasy of mine to work there. I never expected to actually have the opportunity.”
There was only one problem: “The firm had a list of approved nonprofits and EFF wasn’t on it.”
In Nate’s mind, just because EFF wasn’t on the list didn’t mean it couldn’t or shouldn’t be. Like a good hacker, he was undeterred. Like a lawyer with time on his hands, he built a strong case.
“I had to jump through a lot of hoops, including signing conflict waivers that stipulate that I never go back to Pillsbury,” he says. “But I turned the lemons that came with getting laid off into lemonade by getting a fellowship at the nonprofit that I had always harbored a desire to join.”
Jumping into Litigation
At EFF, Nate got his first taste of litigation. By the time the funding for his 12-month fellowship expired, he’d convinced himself litigation was his future.
“In San Francisco, one of the better opportunities was Drinker,” says Nate. He joined Drinker Biddle’s Products Liability and Mass Torts group in July 2010 working for Michelle Childers (and under the tutelage of partners Tom Pulliam and Mike Stortz). He was assigned to a case involving medical device litigation.
“Right off the bat I was in charge of 3,000 separate cases,” Nate recalls. “I got an enormous amount of litigation experience. It taught me how to run pre-trial case management because that’s all I did all day long, every day. Status conferences and motion practice. Case management conferences and negotiating with opposing counsel. At one point there were a hundred and fifty different law firms on the other side. And just Drinker Biddle and Tucker Ellis on our side.”
Nate says the finding-grace-in-chaos that he learned at Drinker Biddle has served him well in all of his subsequent jobs.
He worked at Drinker Biddle for a little more than two years, when he got an unexpected opportunity.
Back to His Roots
A full-time staff position had opened at EFF.
He hadn’t intended to leave Drinker Biddle. “I actually wanted to stay in private practice for another few years,” Nate recalls. “But when the position opened, they came to me because they knew me from the fellowship. They said, it's now or never.”
Returning to EFF, Nate was immersed in the issues that had captured his attention as a teenager and still aroused his passion: Freedom of information. Free expression. Digital anonymity. Electronic surveillance. He was litigating cases of strategic and symbolic importance on a national stage.
“EFF doesn’t take 99% of the cases that walk in the door,” Nate says. “They take cases where there is an opportunity to make the law better or keep the law from getting worse.”
Nate became involved in suing the NSA over the telephone records collection program. He sued the government of Ethiopia for wiretapping an American citizen in his home in Silver Spring, Maryland. He wrote amicus briefs in support of ACLU lawsuits against illegal surveillance.
“I did a lot of FOIA litigation to get records of government purchasing agreements for surveillance technology: things like cell site simulators or biometric surveillance devices,” he says. “You'd be surprised at what you can get — they won't necessarily tell you they have a face recognition machine but you can FOIA the receipts and you know by the purchase order.”
A Shift to Policy
As his career progressed, Nate found himself more and more interested in tech policy — and more comfortable with it than litigation.
“In litigation, everything feels like a zero sum game,” he says. “But that's not the way the world actually works.” Nate moved into a policy role at EFF and eventually stopped litigating altogether. He was doing things like helping write the amicus brief in support of Apple during the San Bernardino FBI iPhone litigation. He penned an opinion piece in the San Jose Mercury News highly critical of Facebook, arguing their “business model depends on our collective confusion and apathy about privacy.”
In late 2018, Nate was in charge of encryption and secure messaging policy at EFF when he got another unexpected opportunity: WhatsApp, the biggest secure messaging platform in the world, asked him to join the company and manage their privacy issues.
Say What, Now?
WhatsApp also happens to be owned by Facebook.
“We went back and forth for a couple of months,” Nate recalls. “My goal was to figure out why Facebook wanted me. What they convinced me of is that they were, and are, hungry for new perspectives on privacy.
“Facebook has taken a pretty serious beating on privacy. And bringing some of those outside perspectives, those critical perspectives, inside the company to help guide the company, guide product decisions, guide strategy, from a privacy viewpoint, is something that was important to Mark (Zuckerberg), and to the rest of senior leadership.”
Nate had found his biggest hacking opportunity yet.
“I was not looking to leave the nonprofit world, I was not done with encryption policy; I just got the opportunity to do it from the inside instead of the civil society side.”
“I advise on the privacy implications, not from a legal standpoint but from a policy standpoint of design decisions, and I do strategic planning to ensure that our product decisions don’t get held up in the courts, in the court of public opinion, by regulators, and by people like Attorney General Barr, who just a few weeks ago demanded that Facebook abandon our plans for end-to-end encryption.
“Half of my job is product counseling (not from a legal perspective, from a policy perspective) and the other half of my job is strategic policy around making sure that the products that billions of people around the world depend on don’t get sabotaged by the US and other governments.
“I am still a lawyer but I’m not a lawyer for the company. The way that I describe it is that the lawyers get to opine on what’s permissible and I get to opine on what’s preferable.”
“I love my new job, and I’m 100% convinced that I made the right decision to move,” Nate says. “At EFF, my role was to shake my fists at Menlo Park from afar and hope they listened.”
“Now I’m here in meetings, every day, making real decisions for real people. So I think that my impact, improving privacy for regular people around the world, is greater here than it was at EFF. And maybe a lot greater here than it was at EFF. There is a culture shift toward privacy going on with this company, from the top down and the bottom up. I wouldn’t have taken the job if I didn’t think they were serious.”
Nate’s biggest challenge in his new role is adjusting to the scale of the company and the amount of work; still, he manages to make time on weekends to brew beer or cook. It harkens back to the days of juggling 3,000 cases in a mass tort: “Drinker taught me the skills to be a litigator,” Nate says. “I’m not a litigator anymore, but the skills are something I couldn’t have gotten this job without.”
He also manages to maintain his connection with Drinker alumni. “I keep in pretty close touch with the associates I worked with all those years ago,” he says. With a little help from Facebook, of course.