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.

“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.