Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Leaks in the information age

fistby Elvert Barnes

 Whistleblowing Is the New Civil Disobedience: Why Edward Snowden Matters
[Via danah boyd | apophenia]

Like many other civil liberties advocates, I’ve been annoyed by how the media has spilled more ink talking about Edward Snowden than the issues that he’s trying to raise. I’ve grumbled at the “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” reality show and the way in which TV news glosses over the complexities that investigative journalists have tried to publish as the story unfolded. But then a friend of mine – computer scientist Nadia Heninger – flipped my thinking upside down with a simple argument: Snowden is offering the public a template for how to whistleblow; leaking information is going to be the civil disobedience of our age.


For 2000 years we have been asking that question, in different ways and different languages. A problem with an authoritarian culture is that is requires human beings to do its work. They can resist authoritarians in all manner of ways.

The NSA can spy on all of us without real consequence.It can collect more data than has ever been stored by any government.

Except that this requires 1000s of people to be involved, where even one of the them leak more information than every thought possible.

Snowden did not need to walk out of there with copies of the petabytes of information the NSA has on everyone. He simply needed to walk out with terabytes of data showing the overview of what was going on.

I can carry 4 terabytes of information in a pants pocket. One damning Powerpoint slide might only take up a few kilobytes.

Snowden may have enough information to leak out damaging information for years. That is the key here. The NSA does not really know what he has or when it will be released. Instead of releasing everything at once and then letting the government incarcerate him – as happened with Manning – Snowden is in a position to use the drip, drip, drip of leaks to distract the NSA.

They cannot know what to cover up and what to be honest about, because Snowden may very well be able to release damning information showing their lies.

Maybe they will learn to tell the truth instead of having to defend their lies everytime from another leak by Snowden.

Or by others who use the same model.

These guys have to hire 1000s of contractors. If they start only hiring authoritarians they will fall even faster. A hallmark of the authoritarian is the inability to adapt rapidly because they are waiting for instructions from above.

All it takes is one of those 1000s to have a strong moral compass and a strong view on civil liberties to screw the NSA. Does no one remember “Three Days of the Condor?” That was one guy simply trying to stay alive using a handful of documents going to one paper for leverage.

What happens when those documents can number in the millions and can be released remotely from anywhere to any news outlet? Perhaps we are seeing this play out right now with Snowden.

In fact, it looks like Snowden actually purposefully fell through any civil libertarian screen the NSA had, just so he could accomplish what he did. Only one ‘mistake’ could be tremendously harmful for them but tremendously helpful for us.

We live in a liberal democracy where fought hard AGAINST authoritarians, with millions dying to preserve civil liberties. Now,instead of picking up a rifle or a banner to defend them, someone only needs to load up a thumb drive, fly off to a sympathetic country and contact the media.

I expect that this will be a counter balance against the authoritarian instincts of the NSA.

I expect their response will be to try and tighten the grip of their authoritarian fists. To paraphrase Princess Leia, “The more the NSA tightens its grip, the more leak will slip between its fingers.”


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