Whistleblowing is the new Civil Disobedience: Why Snowden matters

Via the Bruce Schneier piece we commented on recently, I found this indispensable take on the Snowden Affair and why it matters. The insight is brilliant. Consider it closely. (My own thoughts follow after hers.)

The writer is danah boyd and her bio is here. Briefly, she’s “Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, a Visiting Researcher at Harvard Law School, and an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales.”

Whew. Me, I hold down the Distinguished Chair by the Window at La Maison chez nous, which doubles as an online cooking school.

Ms. boyd is not nobody. Here’s her insight (my emphasis and much reparagraphing):

Like many other civil liberties advocates, I’ve been annoyed by how the media has spilled more ink talking about Edward Snowden than the issues that he’s trying to raise. I’ve grumbled at the “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” reality show and the way in which TV news glosses over the complexities that investigative journalists have tried to publish as the story unfolded.

But then a friend of mine – computer scientist Nadia Heninger – flipped my thinking upside down with a simple argument: Snowden is offering the public a template for how to whistleblow; leaking information is going to be the civil disobedience of our age.

Here’s that insight again, slowly:

1. Snowden is offering a template for whistle-blowers — he’s showing how to up the game.
2. Leaking is being rebranded as modern, effective civil disobedience.

Let those two points sink in. Here’s Ms. boyd again, expanding on point 1, “upping the whistleblower game”:

In recent years, increasing numbers of concerned citizens have been coming forward as whistleblowers, pointing out questionable acts by the American government agencies and corporations. The current administration has responded to this practice by prosecuting more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all previous presidents combined.

Most of what leakers share is barely heard by the public. For example, most people don’t know who Mark Klein is even though he publicly shared information that showed that his former employer – AT&T – was working with the NSA to analyze Americans’ phone calls in violation of citizens’ privacy.

The news coverage he got in 2006 was significant to advocates, but the public doesn’t know his name or even realize that Verizon wasn’t the first telecom to share extensively with the NSA.

That’s the state — and fate — of whistle-blowing, pre-Snowden. Persecuted, prosecuted, marginalized, under-discussed, and not very effective. She then talks about how Bradley Manning did manage to be relevant, but only because of Assange, which offers a mixed template for future whistle-blowers.

This brings her to Snowden:

Edward-Snowden-2Snowden has presented the public with a different case study. … As this drama has played out, Snowden has become a walking diplomatic incident.

Even though he has been disciplined and thoughtful in what he has shared, revealing little more than advocacy organizations have suspected or known for a long time and sharing vague documents that don’t fully make sense, every ounce of American political might has been operationalized to go after him as a serious threat, piquing curiosity about what else he knows and what he might do.

Most likely, had he just revealed what he revealed and then disappeared, it would’ve been a news story for a week and then been quickly forgotten. But because the focus is on him, aspects of what he’s tried to argue keep dripping through the salacious coverage of his whereabouts.

In other words, this story will stay alive for as long (perhaps) as Snowden does. He’s not responsible for the media sideshow, but for his part, he’s played of his own cards, many of them, rather well, and he’s also managed to deal himself a pretty decent hand. His huge cache of stolen documents, trip-wired to explode into public view should he disappear, is both good life insurance and an intriguing stash of secrets for the public to ponder.

One more piece from the analysis, and then I’ll send you to read the rest:

More importantly though, as Nadia pointed out to me, [Snowden]’s creating a template for how to share information. He’s clearly learned from previous whistleblowers and is using many of their tactics. But he’s also forged his own path which has had its own follies.

Regardless of whether he succeeds or fails in getting asylum somewhere, he’s inspired others to think about how they can serve as a check to power. And this is terrifying for any government.

I’ll go back to a word I used above, as perhaps the most important word in this piece — “effective”.

What terrifies any government, especially one as authoritarian and controlling as our own many-headed State is becoming, is an effective opposition. Snowden is being effective. I’m willing to bet, with all of the potential whistle-blowers in this authoritarian controlling world, others like him are just as frustrated, and watching as he points the way. Stay seriously tuned.

The Anti-State Movement is arriving; be hopeful

Any new movement is many-headed as well; it has many fathers and mothers, and many ways to work. Count on it — we’re seeing the birth and early childhood of the next child of the 60s Movement, which had its own many strands.

How can you not say that Occupy, Manning and Snowden are not part of the same resistance to the same monster? How can you not say that the chained-to-the-fence bodies of the next anti-Keystone demonstrations — we’ll have a summerful of them, I promise — is another.

Two take-aways for you. First, be optimistic. Not blind; but act with the thought that we could win, because, hey, we actually could.

Second, there are a hundred pressure points to the authoritarian State we’re growing. No one knows which one will give way, collapsing a portion of the wall that defends it. Who knew that organizing for 1960s civil rights on the Berkeley campus of the University of California would evolved into the one of the big early cracks in the big pro-war anti-progressive wall. As Mario Savio, of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, said:

“One thousand people sitting down can stop any machine, including this machine.”

The movement is building; not getting smaller. If you wanted a resistance, it’s coming.

À la résistance,


To follow or send links: @Gaius_Publius

Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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20 Responses to “Whistleblowing is the new Civil Disobedience: Why Snowden matters”

  1. mpeasee says:

    …that is one of the scariest analysis of this regime that I have read in some time. It really does seem that a police state is in the making…police state 2.0

  2. SpringTexan says:

    Amen! Thank you, Gaius Publius!

  3. Bill_Perdue says:

    “None but the willfully self-deluded can avoid the obvious conclusions.” The obvious conclusion is that the Obama regime and the Congress are building a police state as odious as the ones they set up in Chile and elsewhere and just as odious as the one being constructed by the Putin regime.

  4. Ferdiad says:

    Very good post. I couldn’t agree more. If the government is doing something wrong or unconstitutional and behind our backs, why is it wrong to expose it?

  5. AnitaMann says:

    If I were to advise a new college graduate now, I’d say play the economic game as well as you can while developing a very quiet career as a hacker, a whistle blower, or other activist and get into a position where you can jam a wrench into some part of the system.

  6. williambanzai7 says:

    Mr Conundrum needs to spend some quality time either in an authoritarian or former totalitarian nation, learning what it is like to have nothing in the way of personal liberty.

    Then he make an informed decision on who are the real saboteurs in this affair.

  7. jytaqetizah says:

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    Seems to me all he’s admitting is
    that they haven’t been blatantly caught abusing the power they granted
    themselves, yet. I have no proof myself, but I firmly believe that all
    it will take is one more whistle-blower and we’ll start to find out some
    actual truth in the matter, but they’re playing a giant game of cover
    your ass now.

  8. DrDignity says:

    Mr. Conundrum, Manning & Snowden exposed a level of sabotage to the US Constitution that parallels no other time in its history. A saboteur to a level of secrecy & war crimes for those criminals & their allies, yes! Snowden did the country & the world a favor by revealing a parallel, secret, out-of-control, paranoid leadership we now have. You haven’t a clue what anarchy is nor what honor & fidelity to your Constitution means. It is not secret signing statements. It is not secret courts. It is not false choices between liberty & safety. Safety is what babies need, not adult, conscious citizens. It is not torture as evidenced by Abu Ghraib, extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo without writs of habeas corpus. It is not ignoring treaties like the Hague, Geneva & Nuremberg Accords or the UN Declaration of Human Rights. It is not extraordinary executive overreach like the US has now, more akin to a Roman Caesar’s than an honorable US president. It is unheard of that a sitting US president can kill anyone, anywhere, with no reason or a reason. It is outrageous that the US has signature drone strikes with loads of collateral damage including women & children. The craziest excuse yet is kill them over there & not over there! That is a war crime as defined by Geneva & Nuremberg Accords, established international law! So, Mr. Conundrum, I believe Gaius Publicus is on to something. Maybe you should go back & google the US Constitution, especially the first, fourth & eighth amendments. Google the Geneva & Nuremberg Accords & learn about international law. We live in a world that is connected with its own rule of law. The US is considered a rogue nation & #1 terrorist by most countries. Get real!

  9. Ford Prefect says:

    What recent facts are you speaking of? The fact that Obama has been caught lying yet again?

  10. Naja pallida says:

    Seems to me all he’s admitting is that they haven’t been blatantly caught abusing the power they granted themselves, yet. I have no proof myself, but I firmly believe that all it will take is one more whistle-blower and we’ll start to find out some actual truth in the matter, but they’re playing a giant game of cover your ass now.

  11. conundrum says:

    Snowden did not claim the right to be a “whistle blower”, he claimed the right to be a saboteur; he claimed the right of every American to unilaterally destroy any U.S. policy that they personally disagree with. This is not simply a new form of civil disobedience, this is a descent into anarchy.

    This article fails to bring in new, recent facts. Instead it just goes out and finds somebody who agrees with Gaius, with no real insight into the events, just a cogent opinion.

  12. Kim_Kaufman says:

    When I first heard about Anonymous I thought that on-line was going to be the new civil disobedience. Unfortunately, it’s not something most of us can help with or participate in. Other than just going off-line. Which is not a good solution either.

  13. DrDignity says:

    Nice article! I am hopeful that a third party will restore honor, integrity & dignity to the United States & stop the police state in its tracks. The WikiLeaks Party is growing in Australia & I eventually see someone like Julian Assange in a position of power there. In the US polycracy, the ruling elite comes up with the candidates & we have a pretend election. No matter whom we vote in, this president, senator or congressman is their servant. The SCOTUS has ensured that it is all rigged, with secret, unlimited monies a la Citizens United for their particular servant. But, who has to play that game anymore? I think most are disgusted at the duopoly & as they learn what a polycracy is, we can beat them at their own game & really clean house: restore all of the US Constitution, honor all our treaties: the Nuremberg, Geneva & Hague Accords, the UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights for a start. We also need to get real about global temperature changes & devote ourselves to decreasing our carbon footprint. The war on terror, the war on drugs, the incarcerations, the war on the poor & the war on liberty are expensive & unproductive. Let’s begin by really cleaning house: vote each democrat & republican out with a third party candidate, not beholden to any lobbyist or corporation. Let’s use the internet to talk about the real issues & get everyone to vote the duopoly out. With a new slate, let’s revisit the last two administrations & begin war crimes tribunals which will investigate & prosecute those guilty. We also need to make reparations for the harm & mischief the US has caused. Let’s release all our political prisoners like Bradley Manning & welcome Edward Snowden home. The rise of this inverted totalitarian state will be dead on arrival in a peaceful, non-violent way. Let us all work for these goals: it is our only hope & the world’s only hope from the brutes who have caused so much suffering. We are witnessing the passing of greed.

  14. BeccaM says:

    “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

    Everyone knows some version of Lord Acton’s famous quote.

    Power wielded in secret, by the unaccountable for reasons they need never disclose to anybody but themselves?

    None but the willfully self-deluded can avoid the obvious conclusions.

  15. cole3244 says:

    whistle blowers are the last heros and patriots, when they disappear we all disappear.

  16. Indigo says:

    That sounds about right. The only comment I can add that might help is to keep in mind that the more complex the system, the more weak spots it has. Allow me to suggest that not only is whistle blowing a new civil disobedience (the traditional forms remain valid), but infiltration can be too. Find a weak spot and use it.

  17. Ford Prefect says:

    Heh. It was only seven days ago when Obama opined thusly:

    And if you look at the reports — even the disclosures that Mr. Snowden has put forward — all the stories that have been written, what you’re not reading about is the government actually abusing these programs and listening in on people’s phone calls or inappropriately reading people’s emails. What you’re hearing about is the prospect that these could be abused. Now, part of the reason they’re not abused is because these checks are in place, and those abuses would be against the law and would be against the orders of the FISC.

    He’s practically admitting he’s as lame a Lame Duck as one can be.

  18. VegasDave58 says:

    It never ceases to amaze me when governments try to spin the story and get caught with their pants down. A new revelation, followed by another spin, only to be followed by yet another revelation and another spin. What do government spin doctors not understand about “It’s the cover-up stupid?”

    President Obama’s recent presser where he said there were other avenues for whistle blowers was a joke considering the administrations track record for prosecuting said whistle blowers.

    The institutional need to spin any bad news is getting to be a case of the boy who cried wolf. Your credibility is on the line when tomorrows revelation throws cold water on today’s attempt at spin.

  19. nycfellow says:

    I’ve identified myself at a number of public hearings as a citizen. It gets some smiles & it shocks people. I would respectfully suggest that we have a particular problem with the corruption wielded
    by “Mayor Berlusconi” given the pivotal nature of NYC as lynchpin in global media, finance & (so-called) management. NYC gets imitated, without question – for good & bad – because it’s such an extraordinary human estuary. Other than one such as the flawed LaGuardia – with a huge heart –
    its leaders have tended to not be so extraordinary.

  20. nicho says:

    New documents show that the NSA committed thousands of crimes a year. Snowden should be given a medal and a ticker tape parade.


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