The whistleblowers at the frontier of digital liberation

  • August 13, 2013

Authority & Abolition

Incarcerated, persecuted and put on show trials, today’s digital dissenters — from Manning and Assange to Snowden — continue to speak truth to power.

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s volcanic revelations of ubiquitous US surveillance are in their third month. The aftershocks felt around the world continue. As Russia granted Snowden temporary asylum, the White House fell into anger and dismay.

Computer scientist Nadia Heninger has argued that leaking information is now becoming the “civil disobedience of our age”. The late historian and activist Howard Zinn described the act of civil disobedience as “the deliberate, discriminate, violation of law for a vital social purpose”. He advocated it saying that such an act “becomes not only justifiable but necessary when a fundamental human right is at stake and when legal channels are inadequate for securing that right”. Snowden’s act was clearly one of civil disobedience. John Lewis, US Representative and veteran civil rights leader recently noted that Snowden was “continuing the tradition of civil disobedience by revealing details of classified US surveillance programs”.

Snowden is not alone. In recent years, there have been waves of dissent that revealed the depth of corruption and abuse of power endemic in this global corporate system. Before Snowden, there were Bradley Manning and Jeremy Hammond who shook up the trend of criminal overreach within the US government and its transnational corporate and government allies. Private Bradley Manning blew the whistle on US war crimes and activist Jeremy Hammond exposed the inner workings of the pervasive surveillance state. They took risks to alert the world about the systemic failure of representative government and the trend toward a dangerous corporate authoritarianism.

After Snowden was charged with espionage, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange called for global support to stand with him:

Edward Snowden is one of us. Bradley Manning is one of us. They are young, technically minded people from the generation that Barack Obama betrayed. They are the generation that grew up on the Internet and were shaped by it….

Snowden, Manning and Assange are all part of an Internet generation that holds that transparency of governments and corporations is a critical check on power. They believe in the power of information and in the public’s right to know. In an interview with Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian, Snowden described how his motive was “to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.” He has advocated for the participation of ordinary people in decision-making processes, which he considers to be a a vital part of democratic society, indicating that the policies of national security agencies that he exposed should be up to the public to decide.

This belief is shared by his forerunners. As Bradley Manning, whose actions directly inspired Snowden, wrote in his infamous chat log with ex-hacker Adrian Lamo: “I want people to see the truth… regardless of who they are… because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.” Manning confirmed this conviction once again when he testified at the providence inquiry for his formal plea. After admitting that he was the source of the largest leak of classified documents in history, he spoke again about the motivation behind his actions:

I believed that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information … this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general.

In pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy for hacking into the computers of the private intelligence firm Stratfor, computer whiz Jeremy Hammond stated that he believed “people have a right to know what governments and corporations are doing behind closed doors.”

Barrett Brown, journalist and director of a website called Project PM, which crowd-sourced information exposing the activities of the cyber-intelligence industry, held a similar conviction. Brown now sits behind bars with a possible maximum sentence of 105 years for his daring investigation of the growing private intelligence contractor industry. In an interview with NBC’s Michael Isikoff, Brown described “information freedom” as “the value of this age”. He spoke of how this belief motivates many cyber-activists to engage in civil disobedience against those in positions of power who act unethically.

The motto of these activists is simple: privacy for the public, transparency for government officials and corporate executives. It was this care for privacy and protection of personal information that motivated Snowden to risk his freedom and also caused Andrew ‘Weev’ Auernheimer to expose a security flaw inside AT&T servers. “Auernheimer’s crime was not a hack,” Natasha Lenard of the Salon clarified his position. She explained how Auernheimer “did not illegally access a private server. Rather, his conviction hinged on what data gets to be authorized or unauthorized and who gets to decide this.” Though his actions didn’t harm anyone, Auernheimer was sent to prison for pointing out the company’s failure to protect user data.

It is this common theme of information freedom that motivates this new generation of activists. Their fight against a corrupt system required great personal sacrifice; they have been incarcerated, stripped naked, put on show trials, stuck in an airport transit space and immobilized in an Ecuadorian embassy.

A Vision of a New World

These digital dissenters speak truth to power. By way of the new digital medium, they reveal the deep fraud of an arrogant system that enables governments and corporations to look into the private lives of others while concealing their own immoral actions from the public. But, this was not all: these young activists also carry within them a vision of a new world and of a more open and just society. With the release of the classified NSA files, Snowden stated that he was acting in defense of what he cherishes:

I don’t want to live in a world where everything that I say, everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity or love or friendship is recorded. And that’s not something I’m willing to support, it’s not something I’m willing to build and it’s not something I’m willing to live under.

In his chat log, Manning pointed to the idea of open diplomacy, elaborated in a New York Times article as “the opposite of secret diplomacy, which consists in the underhand negotiation of treaties whose very existence is kept from the world.” Discretely referring to the release of Cablegate, Manning described the material as the “non-PR-versions of world events and crisis” and referred to it as “open diplomacy”. Later he noted that “information should be free” as it “belongs in the public domain” and shared his view stating that if information is out in the open, no one can take advantage of it: “it should do a public good.” Here he showed his longing for an honest society where there is some form of transparency for what leaders are doing in the dark.

This vision of the world is tied to certain values that are encouraged by the open structures of the internet. Unlike the age of the printing press, when information tended to be centralized, the era of the internet fosters an interactive and direct peer-to-peer form of communication. Anthropologist Paul Jorion has noted that the inherently democratic nature of the internet means that “there’s no hierarchy and everyone can express themselves.”

The life of the late activist Aaron Swartz exemplified these new values born in tandem with this digital communication medium. Swartz stood up for the people’s right to free information. The 2008 manifesto he co-authored stated that sharing information was a “moral imperative” against the privatization of knowledge: “We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive.” Swartz urged us to fight for “Guerrilla Open Access”. It is his belief in the freedom to connect that led him into a battle to defeat the Hollywood-based Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a bill that was camouflaged as a solution to copyright infringement, but that actually threatened the ability to communicate and share freely over the internet.

Hammond, who believed in creating “an army so powerful we won’t need weapons”, fought for the same vision as Swartz. Upon Swartz’s death, Hammond wrote in his commemoration:

What is needed is not reform but total transformation — not amendments but abolition. Aaron is a hero to me because he did not wait for those in power to realize his vision and change their game, he sought to change the game himself, and he did so without fear of being labeled a criminal and imprisoned by a backward system of justice.

Before Snowden’s whistleblowing, Julian Assange saw the increasing force that was subverting the internet and alerted people to the spying networks created by transnational corporate allies. In his new book, Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet (co-written with Andy Müller-Maguhn, Jérémie Zimmermann and Jacob Appelbaum), Assange showed how the internet can be used as an instrument for both freedom or oppression.

“Once upon a time in a place that was neither here nor there, we, the constructors and citizens of the young internet discussed the future of our new world,” Assange wrote in the introduction. Pioneers of this net culture seemed to have recognized a democratizing force inherent in the technology of the internet and how its power, when truly freed, could transform the existing structures of ownership and control. The founder of WikiLeaks articulated the vision of Cypherpunks, a group of activists who woke up to the potential of cryptography in bringing societal and political change:

We say that the relationships between all people would be mediated by our new world, and that the nature of states, which are defined by how people exchange information, economic value, and force, would also change. We saw that the merger between existing state structures and the internet created an opening to change the nature of states. … The new world of the internet, abstracted from the old world of brute atoms, longed for independence.

But Assange witnessed how the internet is moving in the opposite direction of his own vision, noting how it “has been transformed into the most dangerous facilitator of totalitarianism we have ever seen,” and indeed has become “a threat to human civilization.” Assange elaborated in a Guardian article how the control of oil resources has been a major denominator for granting certain countries geopolitical power and “the war for oil pipelines” has been driving the world. He argues that this battle has shifted over into “the war for information pipelines: control over fibre-optic cable paths that spread undersea and overland.”

Now, the situation is accelerating. In the last couple of years we have seen a tremendous assault on internet freedom. The force to squash the vision of this generation has infiltrated cyberspace. The battle has begun.

The Frontier of Digital Liberation

The trend toward centralized control or restriction of information flow has become an antithesis to the way of life experienced by this generation of digital activists. Richard Stallman, who inspired figures like Assange, also warned about the surveillance scheme. Stallman, founder of the Free Software Movement, promotes freedom-respecting software, which gives users control over their technology. He has pointed to an unfolding battle between corporations and a growing body of people who believe software and communication venues should be free of insidious covert control.

Stallman has furthermore described how this control is exercised by a form of propriety where corporations and governments subjugate users with insidious features such as converting cell phones into spying and tracking devices and creating software backdoors to make changes to programs or install intentionally malicious software without user’s consent.

In the name of copyright and intellectual property, the act of sharing has in many cases become a crime, yet some have found creative ways to circumvent the systemic clampdown. One of those on the frontier of digital liberation is Gottfrid Svartholm Warg, alias anakata, a Swedish computer specialist who co-founded the BitTorrent site The Pirate Bay, which facilitates peer-to-peer file sharing.

Similar pioneering work was done by Kim Dotcom, a German-Finnish internet entrepreneur who launched the Hong Kong-based company Megaupload, which enables massive file storage and viewing. Such actions were legally attacked by the corporate-government information cartels. Svartholm Warg was charged with illegal downloading of copyrighted material and sent to jail, while the US government over-extended its arrogant imperial power by attempting to shut down Megaupload and extradite Dotcom.

While the founder of Pirate Bay sits behind bars, Torrent Site continues to combat the censorship. It is now releasing a customized Firefox called PirateBrowser that enables users to circumvent the censorship. After the stories of NSA mass spying became public, Dotcom announced the upcoming release of encrypted secure message apps and email service. He stated that he might move this privacy service overseas to Iceland, which is known as a strong advocate of privacy and information freedom.

More and more people are joining together to defend the values of the internet generation. In the last few years, the online collective Anonymous has become the ubiquitous face of cyber-activism. With their well-known V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes masks, this loosely tied and decentralized network acts whenever and wherever its radar catches a classic abuse of power. Beneath the mask there is an idea. Anonymous hacktivists are united by their shared sense of justice and their conviction that ideas are bulletproof. Repeatedly, the collective has shown to be a champion of the downtrodden and those who challenge the powerful — whether they be arrogant government contractors like Aaron Barr, religious organizations like Scientology, immoral governments like those of Syria or the US, or corporations like PayPal and Mastercard.

Ideals of the Heart

The common struggles of these young people bind them together, but the true mark of this generation is a shared vision of a world with virtues like sharing, love and creativity that have been suppressed in the generalized trend towards extreme capitalism within the neoliberal corporate-state. Along with their enormous courage, the digital dissenters reveal a strong sense of compassion and trust in ordinary people. In the online chat logs, Manning showed his extraordinary empathy for others when he wrote that “I can’t separate myself from others… I feel connected to everybody, like they were distant family.”

At OHM 2013, a five-day outdoor international festival for hackers and cyber-security workers, retired CIA officer Ray McGovern remarked how both Snowden and Manning acted with empathy when they witnessed human suffering. They trusted the general public over governments and found hope in the actions of ordinary people to change the course of society for the better. Manning said:

[I]t’s important that it gets out … I feel, for some bizarre reason … it might actually change something … hopefully worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms … if not… then we’re doomed as a species.

The same sentiment was shared by Snowden when he said that “the greatest fear that I have regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures is that nothing will change.” It is those human attributes that the empire is trying to punish, repress and eradicate.

On July 30th, the military judge delivered a verdict in the case of Bradley Manning. Manning was not found guilty for the most ridiculous charge of “aiding the enemy” for leaking state secrets and evidence of war crimes that were published by major news outlets and posted on the internet. Yet, he was found guilty of multiple other counts, including six Espionage Act offenses. He faces punishment of up to 136 years in prison, which during the sentencing phase was reduced to maximum of 90 years.

In responding to the verdict, journalist Norman Solomon wrote about how the problem the U.S. government had with Manning was that he acted out of “caring, with empathy propelling solidarity”. Darker Net called for a miracle in the freeing of Bradley Manning, ringing a similar note:

The US Government wants to lock him away forever. Why? Because he had compassion. Because he had a profound sense of justice. Because he understood the difference between right and wrong. Because he saw aspects of war that horrified him. Some might say he had an innocence; was naive. But perhaps if we all had that same innocence, the world might be a better place.

In this sense of naïveté there lies a strength that makes it possible for us to act toward a vision of a world that we imagine. “It takes a little bit of naivety in order to jump in and do something that otherwise looks impossible. Many great advances in science, technology and culture have a touch of naivety at their inception,” WikiLeaks wrote in their about page describing how the organization was first formed.

What at first appears as naïveté is what actually plants seeds for future change. Sharon Staples, who helped care for Bradley Manning when he was a child, recalled her interaction with him when she visited him in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: “I asked him if he wanted me to send him anything and he said, ‘Everything I want is in here and here.’ As he said the word ‘here’, he pointed to his head, then his heart.”

Ideals grow in the minds and hearts of many in this generation and help cultivate a moral sensibility that allows each person to make unique contributions to the world. Janet Reitman, who wrote a defining piece on Hammond, ended the article by highlighting his idealism: “[Hammond] was an idealist who even after being jailed kept fighting at every occasion and he never betrayed himself.”

For those in power, the idealism of this generation and their conscience is an existential threat to their order. The ‘crime’ of aiding the enemy here is really the act of aiding democracy and acting for the public good. In the end, it has shown that we the public have become the enemy of the state. As the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner said of the younger generation:

The question is not: what knowledge or skills does a person need to have in order to benefit the existing social order. But: what pre-disposition does this person have, and what is capable of development? Then it would be possible to channel new energies from the rising generation into the social order. Then the rising generation will not be fitted into the mould of the existing society, rather society will be what these newly recruited adults make of it.

What is really happening with the growing trend of crackdowns on digital dissenters and truth-tellers? Our society has failed to listen. Those in power are actively shutting out the voices of those with a conscience. Obama’s unprecedented war on whistleblowers, equating these heroic deeds with treason, are simply a symptom of this systematic deafening of society. How did it get to this? How has our society become so degraded?

We Are Winning

The totalitarian surveillance state wasn’t built in a day. There was a warning. Back in 1975, the late Senator Frank Church at the famous Church Committee hearings challenged the burgeoning potential of total surveillance in the US:

[The National Security Agency’s] capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide.

Some 38 years later, this young and courageous whistleblower stepped forward to once again alert the people of the world to the severity of Big Brother moving into a digital dystopia, which he described as “turnkey tyranny”. All the US government would need to do would be to give the order and this once-great nation would spiral into overt despotism. The battle thus continues in earnest between two forces: freedom and control, transparency and secrecy, sharing and proprietary ownership. It is in this fight that the internet generation has found itself.

Speaking from the Ecuadorian embassy, Assange has said that “We are winning … We are a part of a new international body politic that is developing, thanks to the internet.” He predicted to see the inevitable defeat of the national security state, emphasizing that the ones who are recruited into the NSA and the CIA are mostly young people aged between 20 and 30 who have been exposed to internet culture all their lives and who have been profoundly shaped by its values of sharing and transparency. Assange furthermore stated that these young people will find “the agencies that they work for do not behave in a legal, ethical or moral manner.” This is already happening and this new form of information dissent is spreading.

For instance, at the Black Hat conference, a gathering of computer experts and cyber-security professionals in Las Vegas, NSA head Keith Alexander was repeatedly interrupted by the audience. As Alexander stated the NSA’s mission for freedom, a critical voice emerged to oppose the NSA surveillance.

Despite Obama’s aggressive prosecution of whistleblowers, the climate of fear doesn’t seem to hinder the will of those who act with a conscience. Edward Snowden spoke of how he learned from others who came before him, noting that the power of one’s conscience is something that cannot be imprisoned:

Binney, Drake, Kiriakou, and Manning are all examples of how overly-harsh responses to public-interest whistle-blowing only escalate the scale, scope, and skill involved in future disclosures. Citizens with a conscience are not going to ignore wrong-doing simply because they’ll be destroyed for it: the conscience forbids it. Instead, these draconian responses simply build better whistleblowers.

The recent Snowden asylum victory is just the beginning. Now privacy has a chance to at least have a front seat debate. Snowden’s revelations led to a major House vote on an amendment that would defund one single NSA program to end their blanket collection of US phone records. Even though the bill was defeated, it lost by only 12 votes. It brought about huge shifts in public opinion about the security state and government secrecy.

A grassroots organization called Restore the Fourth quickly formed, which had its first round of protest on July 4th to challenge the unconstitutionality of NSA mass surveillance after it was revealed by Snowden. The group recently launched mass protests, calling for “1984 Day”, named for George Orwell’s classic novel about a Big Brother surveillance state. This movement is quickly gathering momentum. Across the major cities of the US, people marched calling to end government spying.

More recently, Ladar Levison, the founder of a US-based encrypted email service reportedly used by Edward Snowden, announced that he was shutting down the operation. The decision was made after being given a stark choice between becoming “complicit in crimes against the American people” or walking “away from nearly ten years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit.” Levison chose the latter instead of submitting to the government’s secret order to provide it with access to customer information.

While government surveillance brings pressure on internet companies to collude with them, more and more people are coming together to resist this insidious force. Three of Germany’s largest email providers announced their plans to partner up to strengthen the security of messages sent between them. Mailpile, an Iceland-based free/open source email service is crowd-funding a secure private email client/cloud service as an alternative to US-tied services such as Gmail. After the revelation of the Xkeyscore spying program, which has been shown to specifically target Wikipedia users, the WikiMedia foundation stepped forward to take extra measures to protect users privacy.

Nothing can stop this generation infused with a new sense of justice and shared vision for humanity. Just like online connections, where when one link is broken another emerges, when one person is taken out of the global network of digital dissenters, several more inevitably emerge. Courage is contagious. This desperate empire might stop a daring individual like Bradley Manning, but it can never lock up all of us.

Call them whistleblowers, dissidents, hackers or geeks, the digital dissenters of today’s internet generation are uncovering deceit and corrupted state power for all the world to see. Our connections and genuine care for one another are a form of power in the ether, creating networks that can lead us into a future already imagined in our collective heart. Whether or not this generation can help move the world beyond the inhumane system of illegitimate governance is up to us, as we too are a part of this rising internet generation.

Nozomi Hayase

Nozomi Hayase is a writer who has been covering issues of freedom of speech, transparency and decentralized movements.

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