This year, one piece of the polyform event known as SXSW Interactive might be called "The Surveillance Thread." The relevant names include Aaron Swartz, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, and Glenn Greenwald. Swartz was the free-information hacktivist who committed suicide last year after two years under a federal indictment for "computer fraud" and the threat of long imprisonment. (He is the subject of the Brian Knappenberger documentary, The Internet's Own Boy, via SXSW Film.) Assange is the founder of WikiLeaks, and spoke to the Festival from political asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Snowden (live-streamed, via "seven proxies," from Russia) is the private security-contractor whistle-blower who exposed the enormous range of the National Security Agency's mass surveillance programs. And Greenwald is the attorney-turned-journalist who was Snowden's initial conduit (at The Guardian) to release the NSA documents, and is now the founder of the Intercept, which continues to pursue the NSA story and is steadily expanding into a major online news source. (Greenwald appeared via Skype, from semiofficial exile in Brazil.)
All these folks carried slightly different messages and perspectives, but before we get to that, I should add one missing name: Chelsea Manning, the U.S. Army soldier who was convicted last year under the Espionage Act for releasing massive amounts of classified documents to WikiLeaks, primarily covering U.S. activities in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, but also embarrassing to high government officials in several other countries. Manning could not appear because she's in military prison at Fort Leavenworth for eight to 35 years. Manning's fate is exemplary not only for her personal bravery, but as a crucial signifier of why all the others appeared at SXSW only indirectly.
Swartz was (at least in part) driven to suicide by an overreaching federal prosecutor explicitly determined to make an example (and headlines) out of him; Snowden and Greenwald can't presently return to or visit the U.S. out of the literal or potential fear of a fate similar to that of Manning.
Swartz's activism was primarily devoted to fighting institutional restrictions on public information. An early Internet wunderkind, he was indicted for downloading privatized academic research (from MIT servers), yet even under indictment, he helped lead the successful fight against the "Stop Online Piracy Act," which threatened to shut down and criminalize websites for even inadvertent publication of copyrighted material. The other three men, with somewhat different emphases, have devoted their public careers to the dissemination of government-restricted material, and they have been routinely threatened by governments and denounced as "traitors." Since I (among myriad others) have relied upon and reported on some of their revelations, I suppose that makes me a very minor traitor-by-association.
It's a very big club. In its honor, Kansas Congressman Mike Pompeo – himself less a public representative than a wholly owned subsidiary of Koch Industries – wrote a grandiose, self-serving letter to the SXSW directors, making all sorts of wild, undocumented charges against Snowden, and requesting that his appearance be canceled. The request was rightfully rejected, director Hugh Forrest commenting, "Our goal here is to be an open platform."
All four speakers were very obviously relevant to the Interactive Festival, and accepting the opportunity, they each addressed the particular interests and expertise of their tech-savvy audiences. The NSA "is setting fire to the future of the Internet," said Snowden, and he was asking "the firefighters" – the tech workers who best understand the tools to protect privacy – to work with users and companies to improve such tools, especially "end-to-end encryption." Snowden added that encryption has prevented the NSA, to this day, from knowing precisely which materials he made available to journalists, and Greenwald recommended later that more of us use encryption, to protect our privacy, to discourage mass surveillance, and to prevent the government from seeing encryption in itself as suspicious.
You needn't approve of everything these men have done or said to applaud them for their crucial roles in exposing the radical overreach, and documented dishonesty, of many officials charged with defending the country and protecting the public. Snowden (echoed by his ACLU defenders) pointed out that both mass surveillance and official pressure on cyber-companies like Google, have, in fact, each created new vulnerabilities in our supposed defenses. The government agents mandated "back doors" in proprietary software to allow easier data mining; as Snowden noted, the U.S. has the biggest vault of information, yet it was effectively leaving out the keys for bad actors. On the other hand, the wholesale collection of massive amounts of data about everybody has distracted the agencies from actual threats by specific actors: For example, the Boston Marathon bombers, despite explicit warnings, were overlooked until it was too late.
As anyone who has been directly involved in social movements can attest, it's not rational nor productive to be constantly paranoid; indeed, fear of repression can be as effective as repression itself. As Greenwald said of journalists, we need to be aware of the undeniable risks in reporting on classified or otherwise hidden public information, but not so fearful that we let it affect our work. Greenwald pointed to the example of Snowden – and he might as readily have pointed to that of Swartz, who finally succumbed to despair – and concluded, "We all need to avoid defeatist thinking, and take decisive and bold action in defense of our values." It's called citizenship.
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