Before working in Washington, D.C. this summer as a Summer Clerk for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Tiffany Ku was surrounded by a tech environment that believed famed NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden should be celebrated as a hero. But two days after she landed at Dulles, she found herself in a very different community. One that seemed to unanimously agree that Snowden was a traitor — no questions asked.
The differing opinions on Snowden are just one example of the big culture shift Ku has experienced going from the west coast’s technology hub to the east coast’s center of the United States government. But the juxtaposition of her technology background with a government perspective is changing the way she thinks about and works in law. In addition to the public outcry she’s used to hearing against “Big Brother” government encroaching on civil liberties through surveillance and data collection, Tiffany has seen the other side and now understands the importance of government legal work for our safety.
While Ku was part of the Technology Programs Division within the Office of the General Counsel at DHS, she worked on government contracts, trademark issues, and cybersecurity policy. Ku’s colleagues have also shared stories with her about national security threats facing the U.S. “It’s hard to put into words how different working in D.C. is than working in San Francisco,” Ku said. “Here, I’m embedded in a federal agency and that’s a whole different culture that I wasn’t exposed to in San Francisco — the reality is that there are actually a lot of very decent people working in government beyond ‘the Man.’ I was used to hearing a very adversarial way of relating to government. That’s a really big culture shift, to be honest.”
Snowden isn’t only high profile case that has influenced Ku as a law student — she thinks a large reason she scored the job at DHS was because of her work in Professor Ahmed Ghappour’s Liberty, Security & Technology Clinic at UC Hastings. Within this clinic, a team of students work with outside counsel under Ghappour’s supervision to litigate issues related to technology, constitutional due process, privacy, speech, and other rights. This semester, Ghappour is teaching a doctrinal seminar that focuses on many of the same issues in security and technology. When she was enrolled, Tiffany assisted the appellate attorneys for Ross Ulbricht, convicted for creating and running Silk Road, an illicit marketplace on the dark web. Ulbricht’s case was national news and very high profile, which was probably a gold star on Ku’s resume when applying to DHS.
It was also this UC Hastings clinic and Professor Ghappour that led her to begin a career in national security and surveillance law. Ghappour also encouraged her to pursue learning government perspectives on the issues.
“Because I loved his clinic, I asked Professor Ghappour: ‘If I want to do the type of work I’m doing in your clinic forever, what do I need to do? What do you wish you would have done when you were in my shoes, as a young lawyer rising up?’” Ku said. “He told me he wished he had had some government background. So, based on that advice, I applied to every single government agency I could think of that had any relation to cyber security or technology, and DHS called me back.”
Ku is focusing on developing a resume that shows she can navigate all intersections of technology and law, from criminal defense to startup policy. Thanks to Ghappour’s advice, she’s added a crucial federal perspective to her resume this summer while at DHS. This has not only shown her another side of debate surrounding privacy and national security, but has made her re-examine what it means to practice law — why she is doing it, and what she’s doing it for. For lawyers, many career directions hinge on personal understandings of justice. Ku’s summer at DHS has influenced her beliefs on what her legal niche might be, and where she thinks she can have genuine impact.
“This summer has given me more context to understand legal practice, and the context is different at the federal level than it is on the state and local level or with a private firm,” Ku said. “You rarely hear anyone in San Francisco talk about having a mission when they work in law. But everyone that comes to work at DHS has a mission at the forefront of their mind: ‘With honor and integrity, we will safeguard the American people, our homeland, and our values.’”
Ku acknowledges that many see San Francisco as a liberal technology bubble, but believes that her comfort with technology will make her a better advocate. Born and raised in the Silicon Valley in a family of computer engineers and early adopters, adapting to the newest innovation was second nature to her while growing up. Studying law at UC Hastings in San Francisco only contributed to this mindset since she is located in the middle of a technology mecca where it is common to talk about the effects of disrupters like the dark web, bitcoin, and drones. As one of only two west coast interns working for DHS this summer, her perspective and background in technology has been unique and important.
“If you’re in San Francisco, you throw a rock and you’ll hit a startup founder,” Ku said. “But attorneys on the east coast aren’t in a similar environment, which can make dialogue difficult. I meet people who have never heard of the Internet of Things. There’s a certain level of disconnect from Internet culture. But how can you understand what Anonymous is if you’ve never been on 4chan? Digital society is driving a lot of the new technology law issues, and it’s important to understand its impact.”