One of the things Edward Snowden said in the first video
interview the Guardian published was that he wanted the discussion to be about
the NSA materials he intended to release, not about him.
But of course that’s not possible. In order to have an
intelligent discussion about the NSA, we need to know how materials fit into
the larger scheme of what the NSA is doing and how Snowden selected them. Since
he chose Bart Gellman, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras as his media contacts,
we also need to know how they and others at the newspapers involved choose from
Snowden’s material and why they present it as they do. It might also be useful
to know what Wikileaks has to gain from their involvement.
The magician says, “Watch my right hand closely,” so that we
won’t see what he’s doing with his left. The material that is left out may be
as important as what is revealed.
Edward Snowden is thirty years old, a self-taught hacker who
has worked for the US intelligence services, sometimes through contractors. His
adult life (let’s say from the age of eighteen) has seen two presidents, Bush
II and Obama, with memories of Clinton and possibly Bush I. He would have
learned about the Cold War through reading. The economy has been pretty good
most of his adult life, until 2008, but his jobs in the intelligence services
seem to have smoothed that out for him.
Like many other young men involved with computers, Snowden
professes some degree of libertarianism. It may be inferred from his hacking of
the NSA and sharing the documents that he shares some of the thinking of the
hacktivist movement. He hasn’t said much and is saying a great deal less since
he’s left the Sheremetyevo transit zone, so we don’t know what he believes. Ethan
Zuckerman has written quite
about how young men like Snowden are interacting with the political
Hackers engage in instrumental
activism, seeking change by challenging unjust laws. They engage in voice-based
activism, articulating their frustration and dissent from systems they either
cannot or are not willing to exit…In addition to traditional channels for civic
engagement, they can engage by creating code, giving them a more varied
repertoire of civic techniques than non-coders have.
How do they know when laws are unjust? And how do they
propose to use that code?
Zuckerman quickly trashes the idea of voting by informed
citizens, with the help of Michael Schudson.
We may be experiencing a shift in
citizenship where the idea of the informed citizen no longer applies well to
the contemporary political climate. The entrenched gridlock of Congress, the
power of incumbency and the geographic polarization of the US make it difficult
to argue that making an informed decision about voting for one’s representative
in Congress is the most effective way to have a voice in political dialogs.
There is, however, a difference between having a voice in
political dialogs (which? With whom?) and voting for Congressional
representatives. Both are important and intertwined, but having a voice has
always contained far more than the act of voting.
After a description of what political activists have always
done, brought up to date (but “outside traditional political channels”),
Zuckerman dubs them “self-actualizing citizens,” referencing
- Diminished sense of
government obligation—higher sense of individual purpose
- Voting is less meaningful
than other, more personally defined acts such as consumerism, community
volunteering, or transnational activism
- Mistrust of media and
politicians is reinforced by negative mass media environment.
- Favors loose networks of
community action—often established or sustained through friendships and
peer relations and thin social ties maintained by interactive information
And code is the hacker’s path to self-actualization.
At the end of the essay, Zuckerman begins to see possible
problems with his model:
But can democracy work if all
citizens are effective at promoting and campaigning for their own issues? Have
we seen evidence of a society with high, effective engagement and with the
other characteristics we expect of a democracy? Should a group like Center for
Civic Media be working on thinking through models of effective citizenship or
considering the larger question of what a large group of effective, engaged
citizens could mean for contemporary visions of democracy?
Is democracy even possible in a world where every citizen
pursues his own idea of the perfect society, attacking others (perhaps only
with code) at will, making himself judge, jury, and executioner? Isn’t this
Hobbes’s all against all?
Government is about people in groups. Politics is about
people in groups. Individual people have different ideas about the best way to
live. But they must work together to assure clean water, build roads, provide
schooling for their children, make available medical care and opportunities to
participate in commerce, and other benefits believed necessary for modern life.
So they have to find ways to work through or ignore those differences. That is
the job of politics. Zuckerman has mistaken the beginning – forming one’s views
– for the end of changing society. “[D]igital natives largely do not participate
in civic affairs out of a sense of duty or obligation but a sense of personal
This seems to be consistent with Snowden’s approach. Snowden
tells us that NSA actions were unacceptable to him, without making clear his
criteria for acceptability. That is to be enough and self-evident from the
documents. Obviously we will all agree with him.
The material that has been released so far provides no
clearer indication of the criteria being used. Some of the material may support
his stated concern, that NSA is collecting too much data on American citizens.
Much of the material, however, simply shows that the NSA has been listening in
on other countries. That is what the signals intelligence agencies of all
countries do. The United
has always been a particular target. Snowden’s flight to China and Russia
and his release of material appearing to ingratiate him with those governments
suggest that he is quite willing to do whatever is necessary to assure his own
Julian Assange, one of Snowden’s protectors, has enunciated
opposition to all secrecy by governments. The broad scope of Snowden’s
revelations suggests that he agrees. In Assange, we again see expediency: he is
quite willing to use secrecy and power for his own purposes, most recently occasioning
in Australia’s Wikileaks
by his tactics. This may be very self-actualizing for Assange is
doing what he thinks is right, but it undermines the ability to work in
Within the hacktivist world, brother hackers have
been turning on each other
as their activities come under the scrutiny of
the government. It turns out that we have a structure of laws, and that the
government feels that it has a monopoly on enforcing them, however
self-actualizing it may be for hackers to attack those they feel are evil. In
the real world, that is called vigilantism. Over time, humans have found that
laws developed by those chosen by that obsolete and unimportant process called
voting work better.
But why should it be just young male hacktivists and code?
Why not use the laws to put liens against those you perceive as your enemies,
namely that government and its law enforcement personnel? Enough to drive them
into bankruptcy and destroy that hated government? That’s how the
sovereign citizens’ movement is actualizing itself
. They want an end to
government, and they are taking action. The means is different from what the hacktivists
use, but the process is very similar, as the end is likely to be.
When voting becomes unimportant, a voted-in government
becomes subject to the manipulations of those who want power. In America today,
that would be a variety of commercial interests – the banks, the fossil fuel
producers, the large corporations. And they will exercise it to the detriment
of the self-actualizing citizens, working up their code. The greatest power
individuals with keyboards, even working together, have is negative: stealing
and exposing secrets, disrupting communications and commerce. Explain to me how
to produce a digital March on Washington.
I think there’s value in testing one’s perceptions of good
and evil in discussion with other citizens and coming up with solutions
everyone can live with. I prefer the imperfect democracy we’ve got now to
individuals making their own decisions and imposing them on the rest of us.
Some of the revelations are of concern and need to be
investigated further. But I’d like to know why some were chosen and what we’re
*Yes, I am writing about young men. Women libertarians and hacktivists
exist, but the face of those two movements is almost exclusively young and
male. I may write more about this in a future post.
Cross-posted at Nuclear Diner.