Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.
Today marks a rather incredible inflection point for the lives and the future and the history of whistleblowers.
The new Snowden movie opens in cinemas across the US today, offering an attempt at exploring the moments that made the whistleblower – his character, his motivation – now a figure of such legend that the story’s being told by Hollywood director Oliver Stone.
Concurrently, and with almost cinematic coincidence, a UK judge has just ruled that hacktivist Lauri Love can be extradited to the US to face alleged hacking charges that could carry a 99-year prison sentence.
The Love case was a test of a legal precedent set in 2012, when then Home Secretary Teresa May protected Gary McKibbon from extradition on similar charges. Love’s legal team say he is set to appeal.
It hasn’t been an easy decade or so for relations between internet folks, citizens, policymakers and spies. While those who grew up exploring the web have always found walls to climb, there are now people with access to privileged information who’ve started to question whether the work they’re doing for their country is really the right thing to do. And that’s all while others work harder still to hide secrets, protect data and stop ‘bad actors’.
From former NSA technical lead Bill Binnie turning whistleblower way back in 2001, to the founding of Wikileaks by Julian Assange in 2006, to 2013, when prominent digital rights campaigner Aaron Swartz took his own life – the internet is becoming an increasingly complex clash of civilisations.
Swartz had just helped win the Stop Online Piracy Act campaign and was tipped for ever-greater political stardom because of his powerful speaking and writing skills, which set him slightly apart from other computer nerds. But it seems he couldn’t bear the pressure of his potential fate – a maximum 50-year jail sentence for mass-downloading science journals from MIT.
When I met Lauri Love in London last week, in town with the Courage Foundation’s Sarah Harrison to do interviews around the Snowden film, he said he’d felt similar suicidal feelings over the course of his time negotiating the opaque US legal system.
Earlier this month, former US solider Chelsea Manning went on hunger strike in a military prison in a bid to secure gender reassignment surgery, while just last night Assange said he would turn himself in if Manning receives a formal pardon from Barack Obama. Ed Snowden, too, suggested this week that the most powerful man in the world could easily extend a pardon to him, “for the things that may seem unlawful in letters on a page but when we look at them morally… it seems these were necessary things, these were vital things”.
What unites most if not all of the people treading an increasingly public line between terrorist and freedom fighter is that they have all been white men, but men who could never or no longer accept a privileged position or a pay cheque. Many of them, also, have a personal background that appears to make them discreditable in some way by the mainstream media. And their lives are becoming increasingly intertwined.
What seems to set apart government whistleblowers like Snowden, Manning and Binnie is that their motivation is patriotism for a country they want to reform, rather than the typical view of a ‘hacker’, who seems more interested in the freedom of the internet and revolution.
Collectively, these people have revealed mass government spying and military crimes, highlighting in technicolour the hypocrisy of a nation considered to be the leader of the free world. Whether the public wanted, or indeed needed, to know these things is apparently still debatable.
“He is a patriot who grew up believing in the system – which is why he risked his entire life for the public to know,” says Sarah Harrison, of Wikileaks and the Courage Foundation, which was set up to help Snowden’s defence, but now advocates for others too.
That includes Lauri Love, along with journalist Barrett Brownand hacktivist Jeremy Hammond, who are both in jail in the US . “This is what it takes – to ruin your whole life in order to tell the truth,” she says.
According to Harrison, Snowden had no further plan once he’d made it to Hong Kong to share the information he had with journalists. “But then, he decided he did want to see if there was any chance he might stay alive.”
It was she who flew to Hong Kong, under the expectation that her expertise at Wikileaks was probably Snowden’s best hope. She then approached different countries asking for asylum, arranged flights to Ecuador via Moscow and Cuba, only to find Snowden’s passport cancelled as they tried to change planes in Moscow.
The pair then spent 40 days in the airport together trying desperately to help Snowden find political asylum, which was ultimately only secured from the Russian government.
“Ed wanted to go to Latin America,” she explains. “He knew what it would look like to end up in Russia. Ultimately, though, this was probably the best place he could be if he wanted to be physically far away from the US.”
She says that while Obama had come to office with a commitment to protect whistleblowers, he “has imprisoned more than any other president”.
“When Julian founded Wikileaks, he thought he’d be bringing light to corrupt regimes, perhaps things coming out of China and Russia, but the largest leaks have all been from the US.”
It’s been well documented that Harrison and Assange used to be a couple, a fact that has been used to question her character, given the Swedish rape allegations and sometimes odd behaviour of the Wikileaks founder. But this feels, at best, a distraction.
These are tense moments, not least for Lauri Love, who lost a friend in Aaron Swartz and says he’s here to “change the coercive plea bargain system, end disproportionate sentences for computer crime and stop the persecution of people who advocate for information transparency”.
For Sarah Harrison too, who is one of the subjects of a wide-ranging US government investigation, despite her journalistic credentials. And for Manning and Snowden, of course, who are quickly becoming the subject of fiction when both just want to go home.