Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower. Photograph: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.