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.

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Industrial Strategy: Ensuring digital skills are included

The opportunities for efficiency, adaptability and growth offered by digital skills have never been so important to British businesses. The New Statesman asked a panel of experts, including Digital Minister Matt Hancock, Tinder Foundation CEO Helen Milner, Tech City CEO Gerard Grech and Google Policy Manager Katie O’Donovan, to pinpoint the weak spots and the opportunities for a smarter digital skills strategy.

British people spend more per capita online than any other country in the developed world. With 82 per cent of adults using the internet on a daily basis and more than 20 per cent of retail sales taking place online, it would appear that most British businesses are digitally capable. A closer look, however, reveals a significant digital skills gap between larger companies and the small businesses that make up 60 per cent of the private sector – comprising a workforce of over 15 million people, with a turnover in excess of £1.6trillion. Of these small enterprises, a third don’t have a website and more than half are unable to sell goods online. So, are digital skills taking priority in the government’s industrial strategy?

Matt Hancock, Minister of State for Digital and Culture, said digital education from an early age will be a cross-party objective for years to come: “We’re making some progress on this, and one of the most exciting things we did in the last parliament was to put coding into the curriculum from age eight. We’ve recognised that there are down-the-track requirements for digital skills, as much as with English and Maths, and we’ve got a huge array of initiatives to corral the enthusiasm for digital and make sure that it is best used.”

Hancock added that participation in the digital economy is important at every level of business and society: “I can group the facts and figures; 23 per cent of people currently lack basic digital skills, and about 90 per cent of new jobs now need some form of them. I think that what we’ve learnt following the Brexit vote is that the need to engage everybody is more demonstrable than ever before. This is a very important part of the Prime Minister’s agenda, and wider digital engagement is a key part of the broader issue to make an economy that works for everyone.” 

It is this wider opportunity to access and education that forms the bedrock of a new partnership between Google and the Tinder Foundation, aiming to deliver digital skills training to those in society who are most in need. Cue the Digital Garage. The project sees community organisations across the country provide skills support to small businesses, sole traders and indviduals, helping them to make the most of their resources.

Katie O’Donovan, Policy Manager at Google, explained: “Google has a longstanding commitment to train 250,000 people across the UK in digital skills. Since launching the Digital Garage in 2015 we’ve provided mentoring and digital skills training in Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Glasgow.  But as the UK faces a new chapter we want to ensure, whether you’re a student looking for your first job, a small business looking to attract new customers or a musician looking to promote your music, the right digital skills are freely available in your local community.

Tinder Foundation CEO Helen Milner recognised that a wider proliferation of digital skills would release a surprising amount of value into the economy. “Some of our research showed that every £1 invested in growing people’s basic digital skills put £10 back into the economy. But it’s not enough to save money - you’ve got to show how you can make money out of it as well.”    

The Labour MP for Aberavon, Stephen Kinnock, has seen at first hand the benefits of support for digital skills, and welcomes opportunities for partnership in his constituency. The shift from manufacturing, he accepts, needs direction and following the depletion of his local steel works he views digitisation as “the only way forward.” Kinnock added that exciting projects such as the Swansea bay region or ‘internet coast’ becoming a testbed for 5G could serve to re-energise communities which are in many ways in a state of decline. Kinnock said: “I’m absolutely delighted that we’re going to have pop-up versions of the Digital Garage in Port Talbot.”

CEO for TeenTech Maggie Philbin, meanwhile, stressed that digital education at school level must be taught through the lens of practical application. She warned: “Many young people aren’t greeted by any coherent messaging in school, so they don’t see why they’d need digital skills in the workplace. We’ve got to start getting a better message across and improve the opportunities for actual work experience that harnesses these skills.”

Karen Price, CEO at The Tech Partnership shares this view. For Price, adapting apprenticeships to incorporate digital skills will help to inspire a culture of innovation. She suggested that “if that's part of an apprenticeship that could be polished to use in a business environment, you'd have a digitally capable young person who could probably move that business on in a different way.”

Nick Williams, Consumer Digital Director for Lloyds Banking Group, views improving people’s digital skills as a matter of urgency and brought up research conducted by the company’s new Business Digital Index for 2016 which found that 38 per cent of small businesses and 49 per cent of charities are currently lacking digital maturity. “It’s no longer a matter of choice,” Williams said, “for organisations to survive, we must focus on a digital message.  Technology’s moved on and people just haven’t kept up. We have to show how these new skills can translate to greater productivity. Ability and access are the two variables to address. We are on the brink of going down the route of a digital divide – those who are capable and those who aren’t – and we’ve got to stop that.”

Rachel Neaman, Director of Skills and Partnerships at Doteveryone, was quick to pick up on this point. She warned that any digital training must not simply be for future generations’ benefit, but also be afforded to those already in work. “What are we doing for the people who currently lack these skills? How do we stop people from being left behind?” Neaman called for an “equal emphasis” on updating and upgrading the existing workforce. Julian David, the CEO at Tech UK, was also keen to highlight that digitisation is “an ongoing process” and therefore “retraining” at regular intervals is needed to cope with a continually evolving demand.

While Hancock spoke of a “unit-based standard learning system”, similar to that used in American schools, to help apply digital skills training where it is most appropriate, IPPR North researcher Jack Hunter said there were real opportunities to be grasped in the coming devolution agenda: “The new mayors that are coming in next year to drive the agenda and economic growth are going to be getting a lot more funding around a variety of different skills streams that feed directly into the digital programme.”

The panel agreed that the digital divide will only grow wider if action is not taken. Director of the Action and Research Centre at the RSA Anthony Painter said that society is being split into two camps: “the confident and creative, and those who feel held back.” Painter recommended that the latter group are given a fresh chance at being empowered digitally. He said: “They don’t tend to use the internet for professional development, whereas the others do. We’ve been having a look at this locally by creating a ‘City of Learning’ which combines a digital platform built around open badges which have micro-accreditations for learning; things that if you get someone’s passionate interest and then start feeding into more formal learning opportunities then you wrap around that a sort of city-led campaign which lets them identify with a common cause – we’re a learning city.”

Tech City UK CEO Gerard Grech concurred and went to explore the link between a strong web presence and business expansion or improvement. The problem identified is that many businesses may not realise the extent of their digital capabilities and thus run the risk of missing out. Grech said: “If you ask a window cleaner if they are a digital business, they might say no, but if you ask how they might go about quoting someone, they could find the address on Google Maps or get the Street View. That’s the idea, to show how digital can be used for them.”

Ultimately, the panel concluded, that the enthusiasm to add a digital depth to Britain’s talent pool was validated by its potential advantages. “A lot of the major challenges facing the economy,” Painter summed up, “are actually rooted in skills. Whether it’s the challenges of Brexit or the challenges of broadband, I think if you fix the skills, everything else falls into place.” The panel agreed that any government has a responsibility to champion digital strategy throughout society, regardless of location or economic standing, and equip businesses with the digital skills required to perform at their best.  

The round-table discussion was chaired by Kirsty Styles.

For more information, visit: https://digitalgarage.withgoogle.com