I was in the DC area this past weekend for a conference called Computers, Freedom, and Privacy (CFP). CFP was one of the many efforts created after the war between hackers and law enforcement in Operation Sundevil to try to prevent such a drama from happening again. The EFF is another such effort. While admittedly the scales are a little more balanced now, the battle has re-emerged and the fire rages more strongly than ever.
I met and chatted about this with a reporter named Wendy Grossman, who’d been attending CFP since the early days. She mentioned that she hadn’t seen anyone like me at CFP for many years, and asked why that was. After a few minutes of explaining the legal situations of people like weev, Barrett Brown, Jeremy Hammond, and so on, she summarized with “it sounds like we’re back to 1994 again.”
I’d actually suggest it’s worse than that. We’re back to 1971. After 13 years of chest-thumping and proclaiming “America Number One” while holding our beers and wearing our football jerseys, our faux-patriotism of nationalist anti-intellectual authoritarianism is beginning to show its cracks. Whether you believe Snowden was in the right to make his disclosures, one thing is clear: the United States has lost control of the narrative we’ve held since the end of World War II.
The muffled voices crying “Where did terrorism come from? Why did they actually attack us on 9/11? What is it that gives us the right to call the US the best country in the world?” are slowly being heard, not as the fringe tinfoil hat lefties, but as reasoned, articulate, dissenters. Perhaps some of them are simply jumping on the bandwagon, but it’s worth noting that once you’re on a bandwagon, you can see a lot more than if you stay in one spot.
What really makes me sad is the lack of any kind of discussion about issues in our country. I kept pressing the advocates at CFP: “Why are journalists no longer asking Obama hard questions?” When the inevitable answer about not wanting to lose access came up, I asked “then wouldn’t you write a story about losing access? You’re a journalist after all!” and met with resounding defeat. The advocates dismissed the journalists as privileged youth coming out of Ivy League schools. When I pointed out these schools are the same places that are supposed to teach critical thinking and a classical education, there was, once again, a silence. There was a sort of disappointment, a silent yearning for thirst of what we could have, but we cannot because the political and media agenda since 9/11 has been of censorship. This, combined with the crap trough-feeding of No Child Left Behind, and the fallacy-like believe that “most people” don’t care, should leave an informed citizen with no question as to why the people no longer trust the government.
Even the very act of voting requires trust. When I cast my vote into the ballot box, what guarantee do I have that it doesn’t wind up in a dumpster, while some act of money changing-hands recalibrates my whole district to be for someone we didn’t elect? If that’s the kind of thing that happens in Mexico but not the United States, then why did Diebold put up such a fight in their court battles? And if people don’t trust that their votes will have any impact, either by size of failure of technology, then why trust in anything else?
The next area that requires trust is the candidate themselves. Will this person represent me? Are they an actual person, not just another sham-puppet cast into human form to promote the idiocracy of the highest bidder? If you think watching presidential debates is painful, watch the last 20-30 years of debates… and note that they are asked the same questions and give the same answers. Because the world is the same as it was 30 years ago, right?
Of course, perhaps the circus carnival we call elected representatives is limited to just that. Perhaps people in longer term appointed positions are less subject to the tragedy of the commons, perhaps there is some hope there. Although given events like Jared Polis grilling the head of the DEA (“All illegal drugs are bad.”), I’m not too hopeful. And then you wonder why the arranged marriage between mudge, one of the few bridges between hacker and government, and DARPA, the so-called Cyber Fast Track, ended abruptly, sending mudge off to Google. But the real question when considering Snowden is how the hell the very court that was designed to reaffirm trust, the FISA court, has failed so miserably at its one and only job.
The fact that we needed a FISA Court at all, thanks to the Church Committee, is a testament to the notion that all the vices and illnesses, such as paranoia and greed, which plague the common man can invade the highest office. And I’m told that in the early days of FISA, it did reflect such oversight. But why was it that right after 9/11, when the PATRIOT Act seemed so ready to be delivered, they expanded the number of judges on FISA from 7 to 11, as if anticipating the massive increased need for surveillance? Of course proof of this increase is not possible, until FISA request numbers before 2000 are made public. Like everything else until the next Snowden comes along, it’s all up for speculation.
The current state of the United States is a staggering insult to our Founding Fathers, and anyone who denies this needs to study history. The Sons of Liberty did indeed keep secrets, but the penalty was being caught and hanged by the British Empire, not being exposed to the public they claimed to serve. During the period Robert Caro calls the Golden Age of the Senate, the decades leading up to the Civil War, there was disagreement in the Senate, voiced strongly on the record, nobody fearing losing his name or title because someone might argue with him. After all, to have free speech is useless unless you use it to join public discourse. Imagine if the strong voices of the South were silenced because they feared retribution from the North? Or better yet, imagine that the Lincoln Douglas debates were classified for fear slaves might read them and revolt (assuming we didn’t have laws banning teaching slaves to read).
The country has lost its way. I’m not suggesting that Snowden holds the answer, but I do suggest he’s helped crack the crystal ball of social censorship and begun to open the gates of discussion to allow us to get it back. Because if we don’t do something soon, we won’t have much left worth arguing for.