Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower. Photograph: Getty Images
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Laurie Penny on whistle-blowing: What do Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning and the Steubenville hacker have in common?

Expose injustice and pay the price.

Bad things happen to whistleblowers right now. Last year, two high-school football players in Steubenville, Ohio, raped an unconscious sixteen-year-old girl over several hours. They took photo footage of themselves doing it, and shared it among their friends. When the pair were finally convicted and sentenced to between one and two years in jail earlier this year, mainstream news outlets wailed that two promising athletes had had their futures ruined, the implication being that the victim really should have shut up and kept quiet and understood that her future and her trauma are far less important than the ambitions of young men.

What was truly shocking, however, was that the case was only prosecuted after a sustained campaign by internet activists, including the protest group Anonymous, which released video and photographic evidence of the crime and drew the world's attention to how little local law enforcement cares about rape victims. Now one of the hackers who helped bring the Steubenville rapists to justice, 26-year-old Deric Lostutter — otherwise known as “KYAnonymous” - is being prosecuted by the FBI

If convicted of computer-related crimes, Lostutter could spend ten years in jail. That's at least five times as long as the rapists. Even if he isn't convicted, his defence could cost hundreds of thousands - he is collecting donations online. Lostutter is entirely unapologetic, and told Josh Harkinson at Mother Jones that he believes that the FBI and Steubenville officials are pursuing him to send a message: “They want to make an example of me, saying, ‘You don’t fucking come after us. Don’t question us.’"

This is how the surveillance state works, and it's also how patriarchy works. The message is: don't tell. Don't ever tell. The people who have power, whether that's the state or the boys on the football team, are allowed to know what you're up to, constantly, intimately, and they can and will punish you for it, but if you turn the tables and show the world how power is abused, you can expect to be fucked with, and fast.

I've been trying for a while now to convince the geek activists and hackers in my life that the fight for the principles of free speech, the fight against surveillance and the fight for a society where whistleblowers are protected, is a feminist fight. Steuvenville isn't the only case where the internet has pursued justice for rape victims where the state was unwilling to do so. There is a growing awareness that commitment to openness and transparency as organising principles necessarily involves a commitment to a new kind of sexual politics. Patriarchy doesn't like it when you tell its secrets, and neither does the government.

Secrecy is only supposed to work for the strong against the weak. Right now Edward Snowden, the former CIA technical operative who leaked data exposing the extent of Anglo-American state internet surveillance to the world, is in hiding in Hong Kong. Snowden, 29, sacrificed everything to tell the world. "The NSA has built an infrastructure that allows it to intercept almost everything. With this capability, the vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested without targeting. I don't want to live in a society that does these sort of things," Snowden told the Guardian. "I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under." When asked what he thought was going to happen to him now, Snowden replied: "Nothing good."

For now, Edward Snowden is safe. At Fort Meade, Bradley Manning isn't. The Wikileaks whistleblower is preparing to spend the rest of his life in jail for putting private information about US foreign policy, including the murder of civilians in Iraq, in the public domain. It's no accident that both Manning and Snowden are former soldiers who served in Iraq and enlisted because, in Snowden's words, "I felt like I had an obligation as a human being to help free people from oppression." Both were quickly disabused of the notion that the American war in the Middle East is achieving anything of the sort, were horrified to find themselves complicit, and decided to do something about it.

Edward Snowden. Bradley Manning. Deric Lostutter. These young people are on the frontlines of a different war, a war of the old world of violence enforced by secrecy against the new logic of information transparency. It is generational, and it is gendered, and it's about values. The MO of national security, in a world where both the nation state and the notion of security are tenuous ideals, holds that any state should be able to access any information about any person at any time, but not vice versa. You can't ever turn off the internet, nor prevent people having access to it, so ordinary people must learn to fear cracking or publish the private data of state and corporate institutions. We must learn to be silent, to keep secrets, or pay for doing not doing so with our freedom, and possibly with our lives.

Right now, a few brave souls are refusing to learn that lesson. The risks they are taking today will affect how states operate in the future, wherever we live; they will decide whether an information-rich society frees people to have more control over our lives or simply allows governments more control over people. What these hackers are writing isn't just history - it's the base code of future human relations, on the most intimate level. And it’s not just even about the state.

It takes us right back to that kitchen in Steubenville, Ohio, and those pictures of that half-naked teenager slung like a dead deer between her rapists. It’s about who, in the future, will be allowed to hurt and abuse other people and expect complicity. It’s about who will be allowed to speak up and call out, and who will be made to pay the price.
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
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What happened when a couple accidentally recorded two hours of their life

The cassette tape threw Dan and Fiona into a terrible panic.

If the Transformers series of movies (Transformers; Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen; Transformers: Dark of the Moon; Transformers: Age of Extinction; and Transformers: the Last Knight) teach us anything, it is that you think your life is going along just fine but in a moment, with a single mistake or incident, it can be derailed and you never know from what direction the threat will come. Shia LaBeouf, for example, thinks everything is completely OK in his world – then he discovers his car is a shape-shifting alien.

I once knew a couple called Dan and Fiona who, on an evening in the early 1980s, accidentally recorded two hours of their life. Fiona was an English teacher (in fact we’d met at teacher-training college) and she wished to make a recording of a play that was being broadcast on Radio 4 about an anorexic teenager living on a council estate in Belfast. A lot of the dramas at that time were about anorexic teenagers living on council estates in Belfast, or something very similar – sometimes they had cancer.

Fiona planned to get her class to listen to the play and then they would have a discussion about its themes. In that pre-internet age when there was no iPlayer, the only practical way to hear something after the time it had been transmitted was to record the programme onto a cassette tape.

So Fiona got out their boom box (a portable Sony stereo player), loaded in a C120 tape, switched on the radio part of the machine, tuned it to Radio 4, pushed the record button when the play began, and fastidiously turned the tape over after 60 minutes.

But instead of pushing the button that would have taped the play, she had actually pushed the button that activated the built-in microphone, and the machine captured, not the radio drama, but the sound of 120 minutes of her and Dan’s home life, which consisted solely of: “Want a cup of tea?” “No thanks.” And a muffled fart while she was out of the room. That was all. That was it.

The two of them had, until that moment, thought their life together was perfectly happy, but the tape proved them conclusively wrong. No couple who spent their evenings in such torpidity could possibly be happy. Theirs was clearly a life of grinding tedium.

The evidence of the cassette tape threw Dan and Fiona into a terrible panic: the idea of spending any more of their evenings in such bored silence was intolerable. They feared they might have to split up. Except they didn’t want to.

But what could they do to make their lives more exciting? Should they begin conducting sordid affairs in sleazy nightclubs? Maybe they could take up arcane hobbies such as musketry, baking terrible cakes and entering them in competitions, or building models of Victorian prisons out of balsa wood? Might they become active in some kind of extremist politics?

All that sounded like a tremendous amount of effort. In the end they got themselves a cat and talked about that instead. 

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder