The name’s Snowden. Edward Snowden


I was asked today whether I thought that Edward Snowden was a one-off, or whether there were more whistleblowers waiting in the wings, and he was the first of many. ‘Of course,’ I said, without even thinking, ‘many, many more.’

It was only afterwards that I thought about why I believe that – because I do believe it. There are many factors, all of which contribute to the likelihood of further whistleblowers, leakers, ‘spies’, or whatever you want to call them.

You need secrets

Whistleblowers need something to blow the whistle about – and, to be frank, there’s plenty more where PRISM came from. If anyone thinks that Snowden has leaked everything that can be leaked in relation to the activities of the NSA, GCHQ and so forth, they’re being very naive. There are lots more secrets where they came from. Indeed, since the first revelations a whole lot more have emerged, and not just from the US. An equivalent French programme, ‘le Big Brother français’ was leaked to Le Monde and allegations of collaboration between the security services in the Netherlands and the US were just two examples: both leaked by people other than Snowden, but apparently inspired by him.

You need ‘bad guys’

The NSA fits the bill here – an almost nameless (‘No Such Agency’) group of faceless spooks, spying on everyone, accountable to no-one. They’re classical villains in spy movies: they’re the ‘State’ in ‘Enemy of the State’, the CIA cell hunting down Jason Bourne and so on. What’s more, their villainous nature has broadened to encompass pretty much the whole of the US government – Obama’s personal involvement has ensured that.

You need inspirations

Polls in the US have suggested there’s a deep split in opinion about Snowden – but to be an inspiration he doesn’t have to be considered a hero by the majority of Americans. He doesn’t even have to be considered a hero by a significant minority of Americans – he has to be considered a hero by enough of the right kind of people. I think he is. In the hacker community his status seems pretty assured – and that’s probably enough.

What’s more, the treatment of Snowden by the US authorities has cemented that status. The way they treated him has made him look like the hero of a spy movie – chasing him from one exotic location to another, causing diplomatic rows by seemingly forcing a diplomatic plane to be diverted and grounded and so on. Perhaps he’s not James Bond, but there are certainly echoes Jason Bourne in his story.

Of course there are arguments that can be made in support of the severity of the response – but would it really put off further whistleblowers? Will they be deterred by the way that Snowden is being hounded? It doesn’t seem likely – the sort of people to make the kind of carefully calculated rational decisions needed to be deterred are not likely whistleblowers anyway. It’s more likely that they will be inspired. Did the abysmal treatment of Bradley Manning by the US authorities deter Snowden? The opposite – they inspired him, made him feel that what he was doing was worthwhile. He quoted the treatment of Manning as one of the reasons that he felt he had to blow the whistle.

In most ways, to me it looks as though the US has done pretty much exactly the wrong thing in relation to Snowden. They’ve made him a cult figure, someone whose name will be remembered in hacker circles for a generation – and is likely to inspire further whistleblowers and hackers.

You need potential whistleblowers

…and that’s the real rub. There are plenty of them. The NSA and their equivalents will be employing nerds, hackers, programmers, whatever you choose to call them, and they’ll be employing a lot of them. What’s more, given the nature of the field, they’ll probably be using third parties to do a lot of the work for them – just as they did in with Booz Allen Hamilton in the case of Snowden. That means they can’t possibly be sure that they’re not employing another potential whistleblower. The people doing the work won’t be ‘career spooks’, deeply loyal to their nation and their agency, ready to give their all, regardless of anything else – those kinds of people are far more the myths of movies than heroes like Bond or Bourne. The people doing the real work will be much more ‘normal’ than that.

So all the pieces of the jigsaw are in place. Snowden wasn’t the first such whistleblower – and he certainly won’t be the last. The authorities need to understand that. Just as we need to adjust ourselves to the fact that we’re being watched all the time, they need to adjust themselves to the reality that their secret plans will almost certainly be leaked.

As I’ve said before, there’s only one sure way to stop your evil plans from being exposed – and that’s not to have evil plans in the first place. Sadly it’s pretty certain that won’t be the solution that the NSA and others find….

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