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.