Nicole Ozer

Nicole Ozer

Nicole A. Ozer was a Non-Resident Fellow at the Digital Civil Society Lab (2018-2019).

Nicole is the Technology and Civil Liberties Director for the ACLU of California. She has led the organization’s cutting-edge work in California to defend and promote civil liberties in the modern digital world since 2004. Nicole sets the strategic vision for the Technology and Civil Liberties Project and its statewide team and implements an integrated advocacy approach that coordinates work in the courts, in communities, with companies, and California policymakers to achieve maximum impact.

Nicole is a nationally recognized expert on issues at the intersection of privacy and government surveillance and free speech and the Internet. Nicole spearheaded the passage of the landmark California Electronic Communications Privacy Act (CalECPA) and California Reader Privacy Act, designed groundbreaking local surveillance reform strategies now used across the country, and also developed the ACLU’s national online privacy campaign, Demand Your dotRights. She is frequently called upon for testimony, presentations, and media appearances. She regularly tweets @nicoleozer and blogs at

Nicole graduated magna cum laude from Amherst College, studied comparative civil rights history at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and earned her J.D. with a Certificate in Law and Technology from from the University of California, Berkeley School of Law.

Fellow Followup January 12, 2024 – Integrated Advocacy and Social Change in the Digital Age

Nicole A. Ozer was a DCSL fellow during 2018-2019 and currently serves as the Technology and Civil Liberties Director for the ACLU of Northern California. Since 2004, Nicole has been leading critical work in California to defend civil liberties in the modern digital world and promote intersectional approaches to advocacy and movement building.

I spoke with Nicole recently about her work leading up to, during, and since the fellowship. Nicole has a wealth of information to share at the intersection of policy, rights, and justice in the digital age, including insights into how communities can work together to build coalitions and promote access, equity, and justice and defend themselves against harms.

Tara: What was your experience like as part of the 2018-2019 cohort and what projects did you work on while during the fellowship?

I was in a slightly different fellowship that year. I worked with DCSL Director, Lucy Bernholz, and another Fellow on a year-long, multi-pronged research project to study how to strengthen collaborations and better support social change. The project culminated in a final report for the  funder community –  Integrated Advocacy Paths forward for Digital Civil Society. My DCSL fellowship project was an extension of some of my work at the ACLU, where I work on building intersectional connections to de-silo what is seen as technology work and movement work. 

Specifically, I look at issues surrounding technology, like how technology is built; how it’s used; who has the power over it; who has access to it; and how decisions about technology can impact people, society, and democracy. All of this work is such a critical part of the fight for social justice movements generally. A lot of organizations still silo those issues. This really undermines our ability to create intersectional power and address how technology can intersect with important movements–from criminal justice to reproductive rights, to LGBTQ rights, to racial and economic justice. For the DCSL fellowship, I brought my on-the-ground experience to help inform how philanthropy could better support intersections and connections to power social change in the digital age.   

This DCSL project also encouraged both organizations and funders to not think in terms of ‘this is tech work and this is racial justice work’ or ‘this is disability rights work and this is LGBTQ work.’ But rather think in terms of, how decisions are made about technology, about what laws exist or don’t exist, and about how technology could support or undermine movements in the digital age. It was really exciting to be able to put that down on paper in the DSCL project and try to encourage even more support to fund connections and develop connective tissue between issues and social justice movements

Along with the paper, we also conducted a series of workshops and created a curriculum to encourage more understanding and connection between people who are working in movements and to also demystify technology issues and give movement leaders the confidence to address technology that may be intersecting with core social justice issues. To be able to see through narratives that suggests that technology is too confusing; that it’s too hard for “regular people” to understand. In effect, narratives making people feel that their knowledge of important community issues, how technology may be impacting these issues, and their thoughts about what should be done to address the concerns is not valid.   

With my work at DCSL, we created a curriculum where people and organizations that weren’t as comfortable with the technology issues could start to see the problem is often 99% of what organizations already do – and maybe 1% a new technology issue. That organizations can and should be able to see through what I have recently been calling “AI washing” and not be afraid or intimidated to speak up about the impact on emerging technology on the issues that they work on everyday and on the people that they work with in communities.

That’s been the driving force in my career as a lawyer. I see myself as a social justice leader, and as someone who tries to use technology law as a means to support movements and fight for justice, and try to build a world where technology is working for the people rather than people getting worked by technology.

TARA: Can you talk about what you’ve been up to since your fellowship?

I was fortunate to be able to take a sabbatical from the ACLU in 2019. I used that time as a Fellow at DSCL and worked with Lucy and others to conduct this study and write this report on steps to build more intersectional connection and power greater social change in the digital age. After my DCSL fellowship, I returned to the ACLU to continue leading the Technology and Civil Liberties Program. 

I went to law school around the time of the first ripple of the field of public interest technology law. I was hired by the ACLU of Northern California in 2004 to develop the Technology and Civil Liberties Program. I lead the ACLU’s statewide work in California to defend and promote social justice in the digital age – developing and implementing integrated advocacy campaigns that combine a wide range of law, policy, and public strategies on issues related to technology and civil rights.

People may be familiar with some of the ACLU work over the last 5-6 years on face surveillance, passing local and state laws, and pushing Amazon and other companies to have corporate moratoriums against sale of these systems to law enforcement. That work started out of my team here in California.

It has been a really successful campaign in terms of changing the public narrative and having people really understand the dangers, spurring corporate change, and passing important local and state laws. Our California ACLU team drafted and helped pass the first local prohibition on face surveillance in San Francisco – and since then, coalitions have passed many other laws around the country. This work has also led to high visibility shareholder actions on the issue and moratoriums by major companies. 

We also made some serious inroads in terms of intersectional advocacy. I remember there was a business reporter writing about a protest against Amazon’s potential New York headquarters. The reporter mentioned that people were also talking at that protest about dangerous face surveillance. The reporter wondered, why are people protesting Amazon’s headquarters also talking about face surveillance and law enforcement surveillance? And that, to me, was a really important moment because it meant that people realized this isn’t a single siloed issue. 

There’s a bigger issue around what kind of power companies have, how they’re externalizing costs of their business models to individuals in society and to our democracy. It’s about how they are partnering with the government in ways to perpetuate the status quo. It was exciting to see the work I had been doing for a long time put into action to create connective tissue and support a variety of social movements, rather than just a single issue.

TARA: Given your work is at the intersection of privacy and government surveillance and free speech and the internet, what are some of the more pressing issues now that you’re tracking in your current work, why should we be paying attention to them?

There are cycles. You see the same things coming back over and over again. I’ve now worked on technology and civil rights issues for 20 years so I’ve seen these cycles come back four or five times. So, I think the most important thing that we can do right now is build the intersectional understanding I’ve talked about in order to really see these big picture connections. The other side is fighting against entire movements for justice and rights, not just one or two issues at a time. So, whenever I’m building these campaigns on a particular issue, I’m trying to build them in a way that creates a climate where we are actually building more sustained power over longer periods of time, and building an understanding for how these issues ultimately connect together.

Related to building more big picture connections and sustained power, this past October, I helped spearhead a symposium at Berkeley Law. It’s actually been 50 years since the passage of the California constitutional right to privacy. Some people may not know, but California has an actual state constitutional right to privacy that was passed in the 1970s and is much broader than the Fourth Amendment that’s on the federal level. For instance, the Fourth Amendment only protects against the government. But in 1972, California voters passed a constitutional right to privacy that applies both to the government and to private parties. It was passed specifically to address modern threats to privacy in terms of computerization, surveillance, information collection, and how that could really affect rights and society.

I worked on the symposium to bring together academics and practitioners to think about how we could actually use state constitutional privacy rights in the most cutting edge ways to protect people right now. We have a legal lever in California in this constitutional right to privacy that we haven’t fully utilized. 

I’m currently writing an article on the history of the constitutional right to privacy and how we can actually make sure that it’s used in the ways that it was intended. As I’ve been going through the archives to write this article, it’s been incredibly fascinating. The constitutional right to privacy was passed in 1972, and it was very much motivated by intersectional activism that was happening in the Civil Rights Movement, in Oakland with the Black Panther Party, with antiwar activists, with the women’s rights movement, and more. When the constitutional right to privacy was being developed and passed, antiwar activists had just exposed COINTELPRO – the massive, clandestine program that had surveilled and harassed Martin Luther King, Jr. and so many other civil rights activists.The Equal Rights Amendment [ERA] was in the process of being ratified by the states. At the same time, computerization was at a turning point – the first internet messages were just being sent between university research labs right here in California. 

When you dig into the historical archives, it becomes clear that the people working to develop and pass the constitutional right to privacy viscerally understood how surveillance had been already used to infiltrate and undermine these incredibly important movements, and that there had to be a very strong law to protect against potentially greater surveillance powered by advances in technology. The constitutional right to privacy was passed to try to avoid the world we are living in right now. But it’s never been used to its full potential. 

TARA: That’s powerful. Do you have an idea of when your paper might be published or when it might be available to read?

I have an abstract already prepared  – California Constitutional Right to Privacy: A History and a Future Rooted in Intersectional Justice and Integrated Advocacy

I’m currently working on finishing the full paper. It will be published in the Berkeley Technology Law Journal later in 2024.

TARA: How can the fellowship community continue to support your work?

It would be amazing to have some kind of reunion, or event, or conference where we can bring fellows back together and just talk and connect. It is such a great community, with so much diverse expertise. If there’s a way that we can create more cross connections between the cohorts to create a more cohesive support network, I think that would be really powerful. 

TARA: Is there anything else you’d like to share? 

I think it’s absolutely critical that we work in a way that sees interconnection and builds power because the other side is formidable.

I’m always interested and excited to connect with folks and think about collaborative projects. If we’re doing similar work, I just encourage folks to be in touch with me. I’m always looking for more ways to be connected across issues and across strategies. I also appreciate other people’s input: Is what we’re doing [at the ACLU] working or not? How could we improve? We can always benefit from new thoughts or ideas. So, I’m excited to be connected with you and the rest of the fellowship cohorts!