The Geek Awakening

Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished at, July 4, 2013.

Edward Snowden is the vanguard of a broader challenge.

In Jan­u­ary of 2008, Anony­mous, a loose col­lec­tive of hack­ers pre­vi­ous­ly known for cyber­bul­ly­ing and break­ing copy­right­ed soft­ware, attacked the web­site of the Church of Sci­en­tol­ogy. Anony­mous was respond­ing the Church’s attempt to scrub the Inter­net of embar­rass­ing video clips of Tom Cruise, a high-pro­file Sci­en­tol­o­gist, behav­ing eccen­tri­cal­ly on TV. The sud­den shift toward polit­i­cal activism — wild­ly derid­ed as “hack­tivism” — marked a turn­ing point in how polit­i­cal issues could play out online.

Four months lat­er, in April, Wik­iLeaks got its first major scoop by pub­lish­ing the secre­tive “bibles” that dis­cussed the the­ol­o­gy and prac­tice of Sci­en­tol­ogy — infor­ma­tion the liti­gious Church want­ed removed from the Inter­net as well. Wik­iLeaks, nat­u­ral­ly, nev­er took down those mate­ri­als and lat­er pub­lished more.

In the years since, Anony­mous has mobi­lized to attack Inter­net ser­vice com­pa­nies and gov­ern­ment web­sites; it filled the par­tial gap left by Wik­iLeaks, which was kicked off of some free web ser­vices like Ama­zon and Pay­Pal over con­cerns about the ille­gal­i­ty of pub­lish­ing secret doc­u­ments stolen from a U.S. gov­ern­ment com­put­er sys­tem.

The rise of both orga­ni­za­tions, Wik­iLeaks and Anony­mous, has sparked some­thing of a Geek Awak­en­ing. Ini­tial­ly inter­est­ing fringe groups known more for their atti­tudes than for mean­ing­ful­ly shift­ing polit­i­cal dis­course, both now sig­ni­fy an Inter­net cul­tur­al move­ment that is chal­leng­ing tra­di­tion­al notions of gov­er­nance.

For the gov­ern­ment, a large cadre of young, tech­no­log­i­cal­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed work­ers pos­es a com­plex chal­lenge. Edward Snow­den, the self-pro­claimed leak­er, has wreaked hav­oc by leak­ing sen­si­tive oper­a­tional details about U.S. intel­li­gence oper­a­tions around the world. Bradley Man­ning, who stole hun­dreds of thou­sands of secret doc­u­ments for Wik­iLeaks, has caused a sim­i­lar dis­rup­tion for the U.S. State Depart­ment. Both men were sup­posed to have access to the data they leaked. Their spe­cial access dates back to one of the most damn­ing con­clu­sions of the 9/11 Com­mis­sion Report: thatbureau­cra­cy allowed nine­teen ter­ror­ists to hijack air­lin­ers and crash them into build­ings. The intel­li­gence was there, but because agen­cies could not (or would not) share it with each oth­er, the attack­ers slipped through. As a con­se­quence, both Con­gress and the Bush admin­is­tra­tion tried to remove some of the “stovepip­ing” that pre­vent­ed infor­ma­tion shar­ing. It meant that the full archive of secret State Depart­ment cables would be avail­able to all ana­lysts on SIPR­Net, the secret inter­net that much of the mil­i­tary, State Depart­ment, and intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty uses to com­mu­ni­cate. On JWICS, the top-secret ver­sion of SIPR­Net, more agen­cies put more of their data in search­able data­bas­es so it would be acces­si­ble to the com­mu­ni­ty.

Much like the finan­cial and Inter­net indus­tries, the world of clas­si­fied gov­ern­ment is held hostage to the ethics of its admin­is­tra­tors and cyber­se­cu­ri­ty offices. That more leaks don’t hap­pen — that there is only one Snow­den, for exam­ple — is a tes­ta­ment to the vast major­i­ty tak­ing their con­fi­den­tial­i­ty agree­ments seri­ous­ly. Yet infra­struc­ture ana­lysts with top-secret clear­ances, like Edward Snow­den, are in extra­or­di­nar­i­ly high demandbecause they covert­ly probe net­work defens­es and iden­ti­fy weak­ness­es that gov­ern­ment cyber­war­fare pro­grams can exploit. They get paid well and, some­times, might not be checked out thor­ough­ly if they’ve pre­vi­ous­ly had a cleared job.

Edward Snow­den, Anony­mous, Wik­iLeaks, and Bradley Man­ning — all emerg­ing around the same time and espous­ing sim­i­lar ideals of rad­i­cal anti-gov­ern­ment trans­paren­cy — rep­re­sent some­thing remark­able: a renais­sance of sorts in geek cul­ture, with hack­er ethics shift­ing into main­stream pol­i­tics and tar­get­ed leaks defend­ed not as mere patri­o­tism but as vital polit­i­cal expres­sion. Edward Snow­den is not some aber­ra­tion in the nation­al secu­ri­ty estab­lish­ment. He is a har­bin­ger.

Peo­ple Are the Weak­est Link

The human fac­tor” is the old­est prob­lem with cyber­se­cu­ri­ty. No mat­ter how much tech­no­log­i­cal wiz­ardry goes into a secu­ri­ty sys­tem, the peo­ple who work in that sys­tem will be prone to leak things, whether by mis­take or on pur­pose.

Humans are the wild­card in most secu­ri­ty ecosys­tems,” an infor­ma­tion secu­ri­ty engi­neer at an Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ty told me (he is not cleared to speak on his employer’s behalf). Any num­ber of fac­tors — ethics, moral­i­ty, bore­dom, spite, revenge, frus­tra­tion, lazi­ness, care­less­ness, or nar­cis­sism — can enter into a person’s deci­sion to buck secu­ri­ty rules and release unau­tho­rized infor­ma­tion.

Peo­ple change their minds all the time,” the engi­neer said, “espe­cial­ly when it comes to apply­ing our notions of pro­pri­ety when they’re held up against com­pelling, con­trast­ing nar­ra­tives.”

Nar­ra­tive — specif­i­cal­ly, Wik­iLeaks’ polit­i­cal nar­ra­tive — seems to have influ­enced Bradley Man­ning. In his court-mar­tial, which began in June, Manning’s defense team said that he decid­ed to send the pur­loined data­bas­es to Wik­iLeaks after he saw what was real­ly hap­pen­ing in Iraq. His first leak, a video called “Col­lat­er­al Mur­der,” showed a hor­ri­fy­ing act sad­ly com­mon in war­fare: a U.S. Army heli­copter fir­ing on a group of known insur­gents, among whom were actu­al­ly a Reuters film crew. Then, while the pilots are record­ed laugh­ing and jok­ing, they fire on a pas­sen­ger van that arrived to pick up any wound­ed. A young boy is griev­ous­ly injured.

One can under­stand how Manning’s out­rage over the hor­rors of war over­came his train­ing to keep secret infor­ma­tion secret. His desire to expose what he saw as crimes against human­i­ty over­pow­ered any impulse to main­tain legal secre­cy, even if those actions could con­ceiv­ably be defend­ed as the regret­table hor­rors that accom­pa­ny war.

Manning’s defend­ers insist that he is a brave whistle­blow­er for expos­ing many secret abus­es. Had he lim­it­ed his leak­ing to the “Col­lat­er­al Mur­der” video, that might be a com­pelling case. But Man­ning didn’t stop there: He released hun­dreds of thou­sands of oth­er doc­u­ments, detail­ing mun­dane but nev­er­the­less sen­si­tive oper­a­tional details of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He then leaked hun­dreds of thou­sands more secret diplo­mat­ic cables used by U.S. embassies to com­mu­ni­cate with the State Depart­ment in Wash­ing­ton. Man­ning not only exposed poten­tial abus­es, he attacked the very sys­tem of inter­na­tion­al state­craft in the process.

There is a sim­i­lar tra­jec­to­ry in how Snow­den is orches­trat­ing his leaks. The first rev­e­la­tion, of a court order­ing Ver­i­zon to hand over its cus­tomer data, is wor­ry­ing enough — sure, it might be legal, but the impli­ca­tions of that data being used improp­er­ly are fright­en­ing. But then Snow­den, like Man­ning, leaked sen­si­tive oper­a­tional details — first about cyber­war­fare con­tin­gen­cies against Chi­na, then about fair­ly nor­mal sur­veil­lance oper­a­tions against Rus­sia.

These last rev­e­la­tions came in the mid­dle of a cyber­se­cu­ri­ty sum­mit between Pres­i­dent Oba­ma and Chi­nese Pre­mier Xi Jin­ping — whose sym­bol­ism was lost on nobody. More recent leaks are even more puz­zling, includ­ing the curi­ous rev­e­la­tion that Pres­i­dent Oba­ma end­ed a sur­veil­lance pro­gram after a court found it to be uncon­sti­tu­tion­al. Beyond mere embar­rass­ment, it’s dif­fi­cult to see the real pub­lic val­ue in these lat­est rev­e­la­tions.

Again, much like Man­ning, Snow­den start­ed with a pos­si­bly defen­si­ble act of whistle­blow­ing but moved into a direct attack on the capac­i­ty of Amer­i­can agen­cies to func­tion in the world. Unlike Man­ning, Snowden’s moti­va­tions are more dif­fi­cult to pin down. What we know of his life sto­ry, and the evo­lu­tion of his world­view, paints a much more com­pli­cat­ed pic­ture than the trou­bled young sol­dier exer­cis­ing poor judg­ment from an intel­li­gence out­post in Iraq.

Snow­den recent­ly told the South Chi­na Morn­ing Post that he secured his NSA job with Booz Allen Hamil­ton for the sole pur­pose of expos­ing its sur­veil­lance activ­i­ties. He made a pre­med­i­tat­ed deci­sion to gain entry to the agency so he could expose its secrets. This action required not a sud­den attack of con­science, as Man­ning claims, but detailed plan­ning — a full-on intel­li­gence oper­a­tion.

A court will have to decide how many laws Snow­den broke. But his emerg­ing, still-evolv­ing life sto­ry — oppos­ing leaks (“leak­ers should be shot in the balls,” he told a chat room), then react­ing against Obama’s failed promis­es, and final­ly act­ing repulsed as a trans­paren­cy activist hor­ri­fied at the idea of gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance — sheds some light on why he released so many top secret pro­grams.

The Cul­tur­al Roots of Tech­no-Dis­si­dence

Assum­ing the details about his life are actu­al­ly true (he could have lied toGuardian reporter Glenn Green­wald, the same way he lied to secu­ri­ty inves­ti­ga­tors at Booz Allen), Edward Snow­den is the lat­est byprod­uct of acoun­ter­cul­ture stretch­ing back to the 1960s that’s tak­en mod­ern form as an infor­mal hack­er cul­ture. Its roots can be found in the anti-Viet­nam war protest move­ment, which grew from oppos­ing an appalling war into a gen­er­al­ized oppo­si­tion to U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy.

The mod­ern incar­na­tion of this move­ment does not rep­re­sent the same social cleav­ages it did in the six­ties — there is no equiv­a­lent to the fem­i­nist, civ­il rights, and oth­er move­ments that explod­ed into mass protests — but it does rep­re­sent the same strain of polit­i­cal activism that sees the U.S. gov­ern­ment as a force for evil in the world that must be opposed.

”The hack­er ‘cul­ture,’ such as one exists, is unit­ed around a main prin­ci­ple of dis­trust­ing of author­i­ty with an ide­al­ized com­mit­ment to civ­il lib­er­ties,” Gabriel­la Cole­man, the Wolfe Chair in Sci­en­tif­ic and Tech­no­log­i­cal Lit­er­a­cy at McGill Uni­ver­si­ty, told me. “That ‘cul­ture’ is incred­i­bly diverse, and their sec­ondary polit­i­cal affil­i­a­tion spans from clas­si­cal lib­er­als, to lib­er­tar­i­ans, to rad­i­cal anti-cap­i­tal­ists.”

Wik­iLeaks founder Julian Assange dis­tilled the unit­ing goal of puri­fied civ­il lib­er­ties and anti-author­i­ty phi­los­o­phy in his online man­i­festos. By describ­ing his belief that gov­ern­ment is, by def­i­n­i­tion, a con­spir­a­cy found­ed on the pro­tec­tion of secre­cy, Assange argues that leak­ing those secrets will break up the con­spir­a­cy, thus secur­ing his ide­al of lib­er­ty. Snowden’s own state­ments about gov­ern­ment, and about the role those leaks will play in dis­rupt­ing it, seem based on the same ide­o­log­i­cal foun­da­tion.

Since the orig­i­nal coun­ter­cul­ture move­ment began five decades ago, pub­lic dis­trust in the gov­ern­ment has grown con­sid­er­ably, and any num­ber of trend­ing top­ics (drones, NSA spy­ing, the World Bank) can now become a synec­doche for a gen­er­al dis­like for the mod­ern world and the pow­er struc­tures behind it. The sup­port Snow­den and Man­ning have received from tech­nol­o­gy activists is not ter­ri­bly sur­pris­ing. The move­ment sup­port­ing leak­ers is, there­fore, quin­tes­sen­tial­ly lib­er­al. It is a prod­uct of West­ern norms and mores: A free press, checks and bal­ances between the branch­es of gov­ern­ment, and watch­dog orga­ni­za­tions are all based on the same com­mit­ment to dis­trust­ing author­i­ty and pre­serv­ing civ­il lib­er­ties.

The Cat­a­lyst

One remark­able aspect of Edward Snowden’s case is his deci­sion to go pub­lic. There are hints he did so in the hope that he could cur­ry favor with oth­er gov­ern­ments that might pro­tect him from U.S. reprisal. But few leak­ers ever will­ing­ly make them­selves pub­lic — they pre­fer the secu­ri­ty that anonymi­ty pro­vides. If the gov­ern­ment doesn’t know who you are, it can’t pros­e­cute you for leak­ing.

Nev­er­the­less, there is a com­mon link con­nect­ing Snowden’s leaks, his sup­port from Wik­iLeaks, and the hoards of Anony­mous sup­port­ers online prais­ing him for expos­ing secrets. “I do think some­thing has shift­ed,” Cole­man said. “Wik­iLeaks and Anony­mous are impor­tant cat­a­lysts.”

Pri­or to the rise of Wik­iLeaks, Cole­man said, many in the hack­er sub­cul­ture thought leaks and open­ness could be used to shift pub­lic per­cep­tion. But their vision wasn’t very large. When Wik­iLeaks pub­lished its “Col­lat­er­al Mur­der” video in ear­ly 2010, it demon­strat­ed that the right kind of leaks could have a trans­for­ma­tive effect on both pub­lic opin­ion and gov­ern­ment pol­i­cy — and spark a new pro-leak­ing move­ment.

It was the Geek Awak­en­ing. “The ear­ly Inter­net engi­neers were devot­ed to mak­ing it easy to trans­mit infor­ma­tion, not to secure it,” Cole­man said. The gov­ern­ment had nev­er caught up to this inher­ent inse­cu­ri­ty: Even the secret net­works used by the mil­i­tary and intel­li­gence ser­vices were still built on the old TCP/IP pro­to­cols that are fiendish­ly dif­fi­cult to keep closed. The result, Cole­man said, is a one-two-punch for the pub­lic: They did not know how inse­cure their infor­ma­tion is, and they did not real­ize how eas­i­ly gov­ern­ments could access it. The geeks had changed the game.

The Gov­ern­ment Can’t Keep Up

The cat­a­lyst Wik­iLeaks and Anony­mous have pro­vid­ed for this Geek Awak­en­ing are only part of the sto­ry, how­ev­er. Cat­a­lysts don’t work if the con­di­tions aren’t right. Young peo­ple today are tech­no­log­i­cal­ly savvy in a way their par­ents nev­er could be, and the more senior peo­ple run­ning gov­ern­ments and design­ing insti­tu­tions have not yet caught up.

I don’t see the prob­lem as hack­er cul­ture so much as the grow­ing tech­noc­ra­cy of neti­zens,” said Samuel Liles, a Pur­due pro­fes­sor spe­cial­iz­ing in transna­tion­al cyberthreats and cyber­foren­sics, in ref­er­ence to active Inter­net users. “I’ve got chem­istry and biol­o­gy stu­dents with bet­ter pro­gram­ming and tech­ni­cal chops than most com­put­er sci­ence stu­dents.”

Seen this way, the chal­lenges pre­sent­ed by Bradley Manning’s cri­sis of con­science and Edward Snowden’s tech­no­log­i­cal empow­er­ment are a case of youth not fit­ting into the molds cast by the old. The neti­zen tech­noc­ra­cy sees a bar­ri­er to infor­ma­tion, from secret intel­li­gence ser­vices to copy­right hold­ers restrict­ing access to films and music, as inher­ent­ly anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic.

It’s no sur­prise that gov­ern­ments have had a hard time adapt­ing to rapid tech­no­log­i­cal change. By design, they are insti­tu­tion­al­ly con­ser­v­a­tive (that is, they are resis­tant to too much change too quick­ly). The incred­i­ble growth of the intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty is a prime exam­ple. As Wash­ing­ton Post Dana Priest report­ed three years ago, it has grown mon­u­men­tal­ly since the 9/11 attacks. The U.S. intel­li­gence bud­get topped $75 bil­lion in 2010, 2.5 times larg­er than it was in 2001. “In all, at least 263 orga­ni­za­tions have been cre­at­ed or reor­ga­nized as a response to 9/11,” she wrote. Near­ly a mil­lion peo­ple have top secret clear­ances.

An ongo­ing inves­ti­ga­tion into gov­ern­ment con­trac­tor USIS, which han­dles most clear­ances and per­formed the back­ground check on Edward Snow­den, and is accused of hav­ing fal­si­fied upwards of fifty-per­cent of its back­ground checks, shows how such rapid growth can intro­duce fail­ure points.

When many secrets are avail­able to many peo­ple, one of them will not keep secrets very well. It is a fun­da­men­tal weak­ness of the nation­al secu­ri­ty state: If a mil­lion peo­ple cleared to han­dle secrets, some­one, some­where is going to leak. When asked about leaks at the Aspen Ideas forum last year, Admi­ral William McRaven said that soon­er or lat­er, the growth of leaks and the cul­ture pro­mot­ing them “is going to cost us our nation­al secu­ri­ty.”

A New Social Bar­gain

Admi­ral McRaven’s apoc­a­lyp­tic pre­dic­tion notwith­stand­ing, it’s clear that some­thing has changed in the bal­ance between gov­ern­ment and its cit­i­zens. The gov­ern­ment is so large, and its secrets so vast, that it is increas­ing­ly imprac­ti­cal to clas­si­fy so much infor­ma­tion.

Estab­lished insti­tu­tions have wit­nessed this new wave of leaks and are wor­ried. The laws gov­ern­ing these insti­tu­tions, many of which were draft­ed in the 1980s or ear­li­er, do not apply in a log­i­cal way because tech­nol­o­gy and pub­lic knowl­edge have advanced so rapid­ly as to make them obso­lete. Hence, sup­pos­ed­ly secret pro­grams like drone strikes in Pak­istan are pub­licly debat­ed and high­ly vis­i­ble. No mat­ter the legal or oper­a­tional con­sid­er­a­tions for keep­ing the pro­gram offi­cial­ly a secret, from a com­mon-sense per­spec­tive, such secre­cy beg­gars belief: After all, the Pak­ista­nis can see drones fly­ing over­head, and some peo­ple in Pakistan’s Fed­er­al­ly Admin­is­tered Trib­al Areas expe­ri­ence the mis­sile strikes. Is it real­ly a secret?

The sys­tem of clas­si­fi­ca­tion in the U.S. gov­ern­ment has not yet had to grap­ple with that sort of ques­tion. Instead, the most like­ly response to Snowden’s leaks (and Manning’s) is going to be deep­er dys­func­tion as agen­cies try to pre­vent future ones with more secre­cy, tighter employ­ee mon­i­tor­ing, and larg­er penal­ties for expo­sure. Secrets will mat­ter more than ever to those who keep them and those who want to pub­lish them, even while the stan­dard of what a “secret” is drops so low as to become mean­ing­less.

With­out a new social bar­gain — a pub­lic debate about the true val­ue of secre­cy, oper­a­tions, secu­ri­ty, and pri­va­cy — it’s dif­fi­cult to see how the nation­al secu­ri­ty sys­tem in Amer­i­ca avoids a cat­a­stroph­ic col­lapse. That may be the ulti­mate goal of groups like Wik­iLeaks, but few Amer­i­cans real­ly want that to hap­pen. Reform­ing the intel­li­gence and nation­al secu­ri­ty com­mu­ni­ties will require dif­fi­cult choic­es and trade­offs for the coun­try. Yet the signs don’t look good: The gov­ern­ment is in a defen­sive crouch, the prac­ti­cal imple­men­ta­tion of reform is not part of the pub­lic dis­cus­sion, and the leaks are con­tin­u­ing. Maybe col­lapse is the only place this can end up.