This rallying call was more potent than any politician's catchphrase. It rang out as a cry for salvation.
For a nation in turmoil, its identity shaken after a lost war, the call that brought the promise of a new dawn, united under one symbol, and one man.
The call came from a man who understood the magical power of simple imagery, a man who liked to descend from the clouds to his people, like some kind of god.
Millions were ready to give unquestioning loyalty to any man who would promise them what they most needed: law and order, a sense of purpose, and, above all, belief in themselves.
Adolph Hitler appeared to millions of Germans as the man who could give them all this. In him, they saw the living proof that the course of history could be bound up with the destiny of one man.
His Minister for Propaganda, Josef Goebbels, expressed it in these words: "Although it may be good to possess power that is based on guns, it is better and more gratifying to win the hearts of the people and to keep them."
Far too often, when the ACLU fights for the disclosure of a government record under the Freedom of Information Act, we have a strong feeling that the government isn’t giving us or the court the whole truth. And sometimes, it appears that the government is even being misleading in the details it chooses to leave out. But rarely does a U.S. senator with access to classified information confirm our intuition.
Last year, we filed a FOIA lawsuit for an opinion authored by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. The contents of the opinion are mostly a mystery, but we do know that John Yoo wrote the opinion in May 2003, that it relates to the Bush administration’s post-9/11 warrantless wiretapping program, that it is directly relevant to the Cybersecurity Act of 2015 (a bill we opposed and called Patriot Act 2.0), and that it pertains to “common commercial service agreements.”
While these are just a few pieces of the puzzle, they are enough to speculate that the opinion offers a legal interpretation that bears on government relationships with the private sector — likely telecom and internet companies — that enable information sharing and surveillance.
That speculation seems appropriate given how we learned of the opinion in the first place. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has repeatedly warned that the OLC’s opinion on common commercial service agreements is critical to understanding the ongoing cybersecurity debate and contains a legal interpretation that is “inconsistent with the public’s understanding of the law.” Sen. Wyden has a history of alerting the public to the government’s reliance on secret law. The last time the senator warned that the executive branch’s secret legal interpretation would shock the public, it turned out he was referring to the NSA’s unlawful bulk collection of call records under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. The facts underlying his warnings roared into public consciousness with the first Snowden disclosure publicized in June 2013.
The government has withheld the OLC opinion on common commercial service agreements in its entirety and defended that secrecy in court. Last month, after the government filed its brief in our lawsuit, Sen. Wyden wrote a public letter to the attorney general noting that the government’s brief in our case contains a “key assertion” that is “inaccurate” and “central to the DOJ’s legal arguments.” He also attached a classified annex to the letter that discussed this inaccuracy in detail. Senator Wyden then submitted an amicus brief in support of our lawsuit, urging the court to review the classified annex to his public letter. (Five days later, the ACLU filed its brief challenging the government’s suppression of the opinion.)
It is virtually unprecedented for a sitting senator to submit an amicus brief calling out the government for misleading the court. Sen. Wyden’s willingness to do so shows just how important it is to release this OLC opinion. Given his track record and his repeated warnings, the court — and the public — should take notice. The OLC opinion is probably far more meaningful to the public and to our privacy than we could possibly guess.
What will happen to American politics if, as now appears likely, the Republican Party nominates Donald Trump? Here’s one bet: It will get more violent.
The United States is headed toward a confrontation, the likes of which it has not seen since 1968, between leftist activists, who believe in physical disruption as a means of drawing attention to injustice, and a candidate eager to forcibly put down that disruption in order to make himself look tough. The new culture of physical disruption on the activist left stems partly from disillusionment with Barack Obama. In 2008, Obama’s election sparked unprecedented excitement among young progressives. But that excitement was followed by deep disillusionment as it became clear that even a liberal black president could not remedy the structural injustices afflicting people of color.
So Millennial activists began challenging politicians directly. In June 2012, two protesters connected with the National Immigrant Youth Alliance occupied the Obama campaign’s Denver office for six days and threatened further takeovers unless the president stopped deporting the young undocumented immigrants dubbed “Dreamers.” Two months later, activists for undocumented immigrants sought to disrupt the Democratic convention in Charlotte.
A year later, the Black Lives Matter movement was born in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin. In 2014, Black Lives Matter leaders began to organize protests after a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, shot and killed Michael Brown. And last summer, in an effort to force presidential candidates to address police violence and mass incarceration, Black Lives Matter activists began disrupting candidates’ events.
After some initial hesitation and defensiveness, Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, and Hillary Clinton reacted to these disruptions by meeting with activists and embracing much of their agenda. Most Republican candidates ignored the protests as best they could.
But Donald Trump saw them as an opportunity. Asked last August about a Bernie Sanders event in which Black Lives Matters protesters spoke at length from the stage, Trump called the senator from Vermont’s response “disgusting.” He added: “That will never happen with me! I don’t know if I’ll do the fighting myself or other people will, but that was a disgrace. I felt badly for him. But it showed that he was weak. Believe me, that’s not going to happen to Trump.”
It’s no coincidence that Trump raised the specter of violence. The Black Lives Matter disruptions had been peaceful. But as Trump’s campaign took off in the summer and fall of last year, he began depicting entire categories of overwhelmingly peaceful people as a physical threat. Undocumented Mexican immigrants were potential “rapists.” Syrian refugees were “strong, powerful men” who might be a “trojan horse” for ISIS.
Trump’s supporters exhibit high levels of what political scientists call “authoritarianism.” Authoritarians are unusually fearful of disorder and favor simple, brutal methods of quashing it. As Amanda Taub has noted, “When many Americans perceived imminent physical threats, the population of authoritarians could seem to swell rapidly.” So by fanning popular fears of chaos, especially violent chaos, Trump wins yet more votes.
He does this, in part, by turning his treatment of the activists who seek to disrupt his events into a parable for how he would restore order in society at large. At a rally in Atlanta last November, an African American man began chanting, “Black Lives Matter.” According to various reports, Trump supporters responded by punching and kicking him while yelling racial slurs. Meanwhile, from the podium, Trump contrasted his response with that of Sanders’s. “You see,” Trump declared, “he was politically correct … I promise you, that’s not going to happen with me. I promise you. Never going to happen. Not going to happen. Can’t let that stuff happen.” Later on Fox News, Trump declared that, “Maybe he should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.”
“You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher.”
In January, when protesters tried to disrupt a Trump rally in Vermont, Trump instructed security guards to “Get him out of here … Don't give him his coat, keep his coat. Confiscate his coat. You know, it’s about 10 degrees below zero outside.” As security dragged a protester from a Nevada rally in February, Trump declared: “You know what I hate? There’s a guy, totally disruptive, throwing punches, we’re not allowed to punch back anymore. I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher.” Reporters found no evidence that the protester had, in fact, punched anyone.
In mentioning the “old days,” Trump was likely referring to the 1960s. Back then, another generation of young leftists disillusioned with the failure of liberal presidents to undo systemic justice tried to physically disrupt political events, most famously at the Democratic Convention in 1968. And back then, another presidential candidate, Alabama Governor George Wallace, also turned protesters into props for an audience hungry to see order restored—if necessary by force. In 1967, anti-Vietnam protesters laid down in front of President Lyndon Johnson’s car. In 1968, in speech after speech, Wallace roused crowds by saying, falsely, that the “protesters had threatened his [Johnson’s] personal safety,” but if “some of them lie down in front of my automobile, it will be the last one they’ll ever want to lie down in front of.”
“The confrontation with the hecklers became a highly stylized feature of every Wallace rally,” writes Lloyd Rohler in his book George Wallace: Conservative Populist. “Violence seemed always to be lurking in the background and it frequently burst forth.” At a Wallace rally on October 29 in Detroit, reported the Chicago Tribune, “wild, chair-swinging violence erupted” as “Wallace supporters and some of several thousand hecklers clashed, first with fists and then with folding chairs … Wallace supporters struck handcuffed hecklers as they were being led away by police, who did not interfere.”
The police are more professional today than they were back then. And video-recording devices are now ubiquitous, which may make such incidents less likely. Then again, Wallace never won a major party’s nomination. Between now and November, Trump could hold hundreds more rallies, many in areas with large African American and Latino populations, in an atmosphere of mounting hysteria as Election Day nears. The young left-wing militants who have already braved danger in places like Ferguson, and who hold their more conflict-averse elders in contempt, are unlikely to stop their disruptions. Trump will keep baiting and threatening them because it’s how he rouses his fans.
How will Americans react if something truly terrible happens? Given the events of recent months, it’s impossible to know.
American and European officials failed on Sunday to reach an agreement over how digital data — including financial information and social media posts — could be transferred between the two regions.
Despite last-minute talks, the two sides remained far apart on specific details required to approve a comprehensive deal. Without an agreement, companies that regularly move data, including tech giants like Google and nontech companies like General Electric, could find themselves in murky legal waters.
European and American officials had until Sunday evening to meet a deadline set by Europe’s national privacy agencies, some of which have promised aggressive legal action if the current negotiations founder. Those agencies will publish their own judgment on how data can be moved safely between the two regions on Wednesday.
With time ticking down, the two sides are now hoping to agree to a broad deal before European national regulators act on Wednesday, according to several officials with direct knowledge of the talks, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Still, negotiators said sticking points remained — including over how Europeans’ data would be protected from surveillance by the American government and how Europeans could seek legal remedies in American courts — and neither side could guarantee the final outcome.
The rules governing the transfer of online data have become a vital issue for many businesses. Facebook and Google, for example, use the information to help tailor the advertisements that are central to their businesses. Many nontech companies, like G.E., move data related to their customers and employees, as well as on how their products are used.
No big American company is expected to change how it does business immediately. But many have gathered teams of lawyers to protect themselves in case no deal emerges.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty,” said Tanguy Van Overstraeten, global head of privacy and data protection at the Brussels office of the Linklaters law firm, who represents companies that may become tangled up in the standoff. “We need a solution. Global business relies on transferring data. You cannot stop that.”
The most recent talks have been taking place in Brussels. Senior officials from the Commerce Department, the Federal Trade Commission and other American agencies traveled there last week. They have been meeting with the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union that is in charge of the negotiations, along with senior national politicians from across Europe.
With the talks increasingly stalled, Penny Pritzker, the United States commerce secretary, was expected to call Vera Jourova, the European commissioner of justice, on Sunday in the hopes of brokering a deal.
The negotiations began three months ago after Europe’s highest court invalidated a 15-year-old data-transfer pact, a so-called safe harbor agreement. The judges ruled that Europeans’ data was not sufficiently protected when being transferred to the United States.
European and American negotiators had been talking for years about a new deal, but the court’s decision — which went into effect immediately — made action increasingly urgent.
In recent weeks, American officials have offered a number of concessions to their European counterparts. They include increased oversight over American intelligence agencies’ access to European data, according to several officials involved in the discussions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
American officials have also proposed the creation of a so-called data ombudsman within the State Department. That office, according to officials, would give Europeans a direct point of contact in the United States if they believed government agencies had misused their data. Europeans also may seek arbitration directly with American companies that they accuse of unlawfully using their digital information.
European officials, though, have expressed doubts that those moves would hold up if challenged in European courts. They have asked the Americans to provide specific details about how the current proposals would work in practice, according to two officials. In particular, Europeans want more information on the limits to American intelligence agencies’ access to European data, and on how Europeans can file legal claims in the United States.
American officials have argued that their proposals will stand up to European legal challenges. They also believe the United States has levels of data protection comparable to those in the European Union, where privacy is valued as highly as freedom of expression.
“We’ve agreed to make major changes,” Bruce H. Andrews, the deputy secretary of the Commerce Department, said on Jan. 15. “The U.S. takes individuals’ privacy very seriously.”
Any company — large or small — that transfers information between the two regions may face legal challenges. But the most likely targets for litigation, privacy advocates say, are large American tech giants like Google and Facebook that rely so heavily on people’s data.
Several of Europe’s national data regulators, including Isabelle Falque-Pierrotin, the French privacy chief who is chairwoman of a Pan-European data protection group, have said they will back a new data-transfer agreement if all of Europe’s privacy rights are upheld in the United States.
But if a new pact is not approved — or does not meet national regulators’ standards — some European privacy watchdogs may demand new limits on the movement of data.
Several consumer groups plan to file complaints about how companies transfer data as soon as Monday, arguing that people’s rights are not upheld when information is moved to the United States.
“These issues are going to end up back in court,” said Peter Swire, a law professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who helped negotiate the original safe harbor agreement while working for the Clinton administration.
The importance of the deal to the companies and privacy groups has crystallized in recent weeks, as American executives and government officials made it a top priority.
At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, for instance, Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of the social network Facebook, held high-level discussions with a number of European and American politicians to voice the company’s concerns about the pending deadline, according to several people with knowledge of the matter.
Secretary Pritzker also met with Andrus Ansip, the European official in charge of the region’s digital agenda, among other local policy makers, at Davos to discuss the new pact.
On their way to negotiations in Brussels, a delegation of American officials made a stop in Paris last week, sitting down with a group of European national regulators to address concerns over how their citizens’ data was used in the United States.
In Brussels, several trade groups regularly shuttled between meetings with senior European officials last week. The groups representing the tech industry came armed with a series of legal opinions from leading data protection experts that played down the differences in the way privacy was handled in the two regions.
The legal arguments included details about why current United States rules were on par with those of Europe — a view that critics of America’s position jumped on almost immediately.
“That assessment just isn’t true,” said Jan Philipp Albrecht, a German politician who has called for stronger data protection rules. “There’s a massive difference over how this issue is treated in Europe compared to the U.S.”
Justice Ministry documents were heavily redacted, but confirm landing
The online media source Denfri.dk reports that, after gaining access to documents from the Justice Ministry, it has confirmed that in June 2013 Copenhagen Airport was used to hold an American rendition plane that was sent to capture Edward Snowden from Moscow Airport and return him to the USA.Snowden, who shot into the international limelight after making extensive revelations about the USA’s intelligence activities at home and abroad, was confined to the airport in Russia before he was offered asylum in the country.READ MORE: Rasmussen rules out offering asylum to Snowden
The story of a Gulfstream private aircraft with registration number N977GA on a course towards Russia being seen by plane spotters in Scotland but coming no further than Denmark was reported in the summer of 2014.
In August last year Denfri.dk applied for access to documents concerning an alleged arrangement for the Danish authorities to arrest and extradite Snowden if he set foot in the country and details of the mysterious plane that was reported to have used Copenhagen Airport.
Access to many of the documents sought was denied and much of the information was heavily redacted.
“Denmark’s relationship with the USA would be damaged if the information becomes public knowledge,” the Justice Ministry wrote in its reply.
The documents do, however, confirm that the Gulfstream aircraft used Danish airspace and landed at Kastrup. An overflying and landing permission for a “USA state flight” is included, as is email correspondence around the time of the landing from senior staff at the police and Justice Ministry concerning the landing.
The sky over Yemen at 1:30 a.m. is dark and still, a vault of deep blackness brushed with a faint smattering of stars. Sprawled on an office chair beneath it, the filmmaker Laura Poitras stares upward, taking in the view.
Yemen’s a complicated place, a flash point in America’s war on terror and currently in the throes of a devastating civil war. Poitras lived there for a while, in a small apartment in the middle of Sana’a, the capital city, filming her 2010 documentary, The Oath. She’d spent much of her adult life in New York, but after 9/11, as so many artists and journalists examined what the attacks had done to America, Poitras picked up her camera and set off to explore what 9/11—or, more accurately, America’s response to it—was doing to the rest of the world. Her work has taken her to Iraq, to Guantánamo Bay, and perhaps most famously to Hong Kong in 2013, where she spent eight tense days holed up in a hotel room with Edward Snowden, filming him up close and in real time as he went from an anonymous computer nerd to the world’s most wanted fugitive. Her filmCitizenfour swept the awards season last year, culminating in an Oscar win.
Poitras is once again in New York, having moved back to the city after several years basing herself out of Berlin. We’re in her studio, a few blocks from the Hudson River, peering at the sky in Yemen. It’s a sunny afternoon, but the window shades have been drawn against the light, so that a live video feed from Sana’a can be projected clearly onto a ceiling-mounted screen. Dressed casually in a black cotton shirt, jeans, and sneakers, Poitras, who is 51, leans back in her chair. The sky-cam is an experiment. She is putting together her first major art exhibition, which will occupy the top floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art beginning this month. The exhibit includes a number of short films but is primarily a series of immersive installations, designed almost as a walk-through narrative about the world post 9/11. One idea is to project onto the museum’s ceiling overhead views from parts of the world where the U.S. drone program is active. “I’m interested in going back to these themes of the war on terror,” Poitras says. “What does it mean? How can we understand it on more human terms?”
The studio is a large concrete-floored room filled primarily with computer equipment. In a cluttered corner, sitting on a file cabinet, is a bronze BAFTA Award looking as if nobody has given it a second thought. Pretty much everyone I speak with about Poitras tells me that she is a seven-day-a-week worker, someone who is both too humble and too driven to pause and survey her achievements, which in addition to her raft of film awards includes a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur “genius grant.” “I’m pretty obsessive,” Poitras says, referring to her marathon workweeks and myriad projects, “but these are good problems to have.”
Poitras feels strongly that the U.S. government, through a number of secretive anti-terror programs and a lack of Congressional oversight, has done more to breed the kind of anti-American sentiment that fuels terrorism than to squelch it. “I really think that the war on terror makes us less safe,” she tells me. “Look at something like ISIS. ISIS emerged out of the power vacuum that we created in the Iraq War.” She cites as evidence everything from the use of torture at Guantánamo to the top-secret drone assassination program that’s put unmanned, buzzing aircraft in the skies over places like Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. “It creates a completely unstable world,” she says.
A lot of people think, Oh, the Snowden story is a great story that any journalist would want to get ahold of. But it didn’t feel that way then. I was seriously scared LAURA POITRAS
Her work could be seen as attempting, again and again, to redirect the American gaze. Her film My Country, My Country offered a stirring look at the life of an Iraqi doctor running for political office in Baghdad. The Oath told parallel stories of a former jihadist living freely in Yemen while his brother-in-law languished in Guantánamo. Lately she’s focused on drones. Drone strikes aimed at terrorists, Poitras will tell you, have killed scores of civilians. The first day I meet Poitras in October, the Intercept, the online media organization she founded in 2014 with journalists Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill, has just published an explosive series of stories about the U.S. drone program. Among its chief revelations is a leaked military review showing that nearly 90 percent of people killed in drone strikes in Afghanistan were “not the intended target.” And while Scahill is out making the rounds on cable talk shows, while Greenwald offers a stream of spitfire outrage on Twitter, Poitras is attempting to hit a deeper vein—that of human empathy. In putting video of Yemen on the ceiling of the Whitney Museum, she’s quietly inviting Americans to consider skies that are not their own.
“Artists have always dealt with the critical issues of their time,” says the Whitney’s director, Adam Weinberg. “And Laura Poitras knows the issues firsthand.” She’s titled the exhibition “Astro Noise,” which is also the nickname Edward Snowden gave to the massive file of leaked documents he sent her in 2013, which landed in her life with the force of a meteor. Weinberg predicts that the exhibition will serve as a lightning rod for public discourse. “You’ll have people on one end of the spectrum who’ll say it’s not radical enough,” he says, “and another side feeling like it’s an incredible breach of national security.”
Later that evening, Poitras sits in a low-lit Japanese restaurant in SoHo, sipping a green-tea mojito and mulling over all that’s happened in the last two years. “To be quite honest, I don’t think I’ve taken the time to take a breath,” she says. She seems a bit stunned, like a diver who’s only just surfaced. “In retrospect, a lot of people think, Oh, the Snowden story is a great story that any journalist would want to get ahold of,” she says. “But it didn’t feel that way then. I was seriously scared.”
Poitras has flowing dark hair and gray-green eyes that are wide and watchful. In conversation, she’s thoughtful and earnest, laughing often but never appearing fully relaxed. The restaurant is dim enough that, tucked into a corner, she’s hardly visible. Which, it would seem, is how she likes it. Poitras is a dialed-down presence in any room, soft-spoken and unshowy, almost invariably dressed in black. Twice now, I’ve attended premieres of her films—crowded, celebratory affairs meant to be all about her—and each time she seemed deliberately to get lost in the crowd. “With my work, being under the radar is sort of a good thing,” she tells me.
There’s a distinct irony to this, of course. These days, there’s little chance of her staying under the radar. If she was once a respected but little-known documentarian, Poitras—post-Snowden—has become a powerful force in both film and news media. Through the Intercept, she recently launched a bold new outlet that funds and posts short-form documentaries (“visual journalism” is how she refers to it), called “Field of Vision.” At the New York Film Festival in late September, she previewed her next film project, Asylum, which has been edited into thirteen short episodes and chronicles the plight of controversial WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, whom Poitras has been filming off and on since 2011.
All the while, she continues to work with a small team of journalists, divining information from the seemingly inexhaustible Snowden archive. “I still feel an intense obligation to report on it,” Poitras says, adding that there’s pressure to handle the material responsibly, to weigh which government secrets are important for the public to know and which are best left undisclosed. Her colleague Glenn Greenwald—whose reporting from Hong Kong introduced the world to NSA spying—says that the archive represents “both a massive opportunity but also a very heavy burden” for Poitras, adding that “Laura is one of the most creative, passionate, intense, and complicated people I’ve ever met.” And while Greenwald is verbose and comfortable in the spotlight, Poitras seems bent on keeping a lower profile. “She has this profound regard for art and its ability to enlighten and move people,” he says. “She channels all of that into her filmmaking rather than into polemics or words.”
When she was a child growing up in an affluent suburb of Boston, Poitras says, she was quiet and serious, interested in art at an early age. Her father was a computer programmer at a hospital, her mother a registered nurse. She attended a private school that emphasized student-led learning. “There was a lot of unstructured time, which allowed me to develop my senses creatively,” she says. As a teen, she often escaped into the city to see live music (David Bowie, Talking Heads) and movies (A Clockwork Orange, Taxi Driver) at art houses.
By the time she was twelve, she had fallen in love with cooking. After finishing high school, she worked for a number of years as a sous-chef in prominent French restaurants—first in Boston, then in San Francisco. “I loved the challenge,” she says now. “I loved the creativity. I loved the fact that every day you had to make something new.” It was also, she adds, good training for the quick-paced, high-stress filmmaking she would later do. In her free time, she took classes at the San Francisco Art Institute, drawn to experimental, avant-garde film. Eventually, she relocated to New York, studying political theory and media studies at the New School. Nowadays, Poitras enjoys eating a great meal but doesn’t often cook herself, finding it too stressful. “I go into work mode,” she says with a laugh. “I take it too seriously. It’s not relaxing at all.”
Poitras was 35 years old when she embarked on her first long-form documentary, collaborating with a filmmaker named Linda Goode Bryant on Flag Wars, which followed a conflict over gentrification in a traditionally African-American neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio. The film aired on PBS in 2003 and was nominated for an Emmy. More important, it was a revelation for Poitras about what she wanted to do with her life. “It was a very profound experience,” she says. “I learned that I actually love filming people, being with them for these long periods of time, in moments of uncertainty, not knowing what will happen.”
She and Goode Bryant were in the midst of editing Flag Wars when the September 11 attacks took place. Poitras was living on 101st Street and remembers walking in the morning to work, unaware of what was happening. Her first inkling came when she passed a homeless person on the street, who looked at her and said, “The world is ending.” She was moved by the outpouring of compassion that flowed through the city. “It was actually a very profound time to be in New York,” she says. But later, as the drumbeat for the Iraq war picked up, she felt the stirrings of genuine alarm. “I had a real sense that we were moving in a direction that was really dangerous,” she says. “That was when I realized I wanted to say something about it.”
In her films, Poitras is mostly invisible, dedicated to the let-it-happen style of cinema vérité. Her steeliness behind the camera is legendary. Diane Weyermann, executive vice president for documentaries at Participant Media and one of the producers on Citizenfour, remembers seeing My Country, My Country, which received an Academy Award nomination. Poitras had moved herself to Baghdad in the summer of 2004, as the insurgency was beginning, spending much of her time in the home of Dr. Riyadh al-Adhadh, who is profiled in the film, and in the homes of other Iraqis. “There’s this moment when she’s filming and a bomb goes off—an explosion,” says Weyermann. “And the camera doesn’t move. The people in the kitchen all jump up and run, but Laura doesn’t. It was that moment, that scene, that made me understand what a singular talent she is.”
Snowden also recognized Poitras’s grit. He contacted her after seeing a short documentary she’d made about William Binney, a whistle-blower who left the NSA in 2001. She was one of few journalists well versed in digital security at the time. For reasons she didn’t understand, Poitras had been put on a terrorism-related watch list by the U.S. government. Over the course of several years, she was detained and questioned more than 40 times at airports, having her notes photocopied and at one point, a laptop confiscated, which led her to start securing her communications and eventually to move from New York to Berlin, where she felt less compromised.
When a message arrived from an anonymous source calling himself Citizen Four, she worried it was a trap. “I had immediate ‘alert’ instincts,” Poitras says now. “I thought, This is dangerous. And it was.”
She and Snowden corresponded with mutual caution for several months. Knowing the stakes were high, she limited contact with friends, moved to a new apartment, and stopped carrying a cell phone, knowing it could be used to track her location. She played out different scenarios in her head, including one in which she went to jail in order to protect her then-anonymous source. The anxiety was crushing. Her eyes twitched; her throat felt clenched. She did yoga to try to stay calm. “I’m battling with my nervous system,” she wrote in her journal at the time. “It doesn’t let me rest or sleep.”
Earlier that day, Poitras allowed me to read excerpts of the journal she kept in Berlin, which she has decided, after some hesitation, to publish in the catalog accompanying the Whitney exhibition. The journal entries reveal both a churning intellect (“What is this film really about? It might be about the courage to resist power . . . ”), bouts of what seems like depression (“I don’t feel good or grounded. I’m off-balance”), and a mounting sense of paranoia.
The decision to publish the journal feels significant. Poitras is unswervingly guarded when it comes to her private life. She will speak animatedly about films she loves (the documentary Man on Wire, the HBO miniseries The Jinx), artists who’ve inspired her (American photographer Trevor Paglen), or books that have given her insight (George Orwell’s 1984). But pose any sort of question about her life outside of work, and you are likely to be met with a gentle smackdown, usually in the form of “I’d rather not say.”
Our conversation begins to take on a kind of comic push-pull as Poitras declines to give details, even when the details—it seems to me—are harmless. She won’t tell me which part of Berlin she lived in, whether her journal was a bound or spiral notebook, whether she wrote in it with pen. She doesn’t want to discuss her family, her relationship status, or what she does in her free time. “I’ve never talked about my private life,” she says. “I feel like that’s private.” After this comes a long silence.
Perhaps this is the residue of being surveilled. Perhaps it’s an inbred cautiousness—a deep, protective impulse that’s kept her safe and productive through years of working in high-risk environments. Poitras tells me she doesn’t much enjoy being well known. “I don’t love it when someone comes up to me in a coffee shop,” she says, almost sheepishly. She also recognizes that there’s something “ungenerous,” as she puts it, in being a filmmaker who finds her way into the inner sanctum of other people’s lives, but insists on keeping prying outsiders out of her own. Nonetheless, the line holds.
“I feel bad,” she says finally, acknowledging all the things she won’t tell me.
“I feel bad, too,” I say, acknowledging all the things I want to know.
Poitras assumes that she’s still “of interest” to intelligence agencies. She recently sued the federal government to obtain records of her various detentions at airports, receiving 800-plus pages, some of which she intends to hang on the walls of the Whitney. Reading the documents, she discovered that a secret grand jury was convened in 2007 to investigate her on charges of conspiracy, stemming from a day in Iraq when U.S. soldiers spotted Poitras on a Baghdad rooftop holding a camera and apparently deemed it suspicious. (Poitras says any suggestion she abetted Iraqi insurgents is spurious.) “That was definitely shocking,” she says. It’s unclear what the grand jury’s ultimate findings were, but she’s no longer hassled at airports. She’s also relaxed her guard enough to start carrying an iPhone. Happy to be back in New York, she often meets friends for dinner and turns up regularly at documentary-film premieres and art openings. It all seems to be part of the post-Snowden resurfacing. When I ask if it feels good to have a cell phone again, Poitras laughs. “No, but it feels practical,” she says. “I mean, for a long time, I was very hard to reach.”
As the backstory to the Snowden affair has grown more public, Poitras has taken on the glimmer of an icon. The latest season of the TV show Homeland, for example, is set in Berlin and features hackers, government agents, top-secret leaked documents, and a hard-driving journalist named Laura. Everyone from theWall Street Journal to The New York Times has noted the parallel to Poitras. When I mention this to her, she flares her eyelids as if to say, “Can you believe it?” but offers no comment.
“It’s gotten surreal,” says Brenda Coughlin, a producer at Poitras’s film company who’s working closely with her on the Whitney exhibition. “Her life has changed dramatically, and I think that’s weird for her.” Last year, during a visit to Hong Kong, Poitras stayed at the Mira Hotel, where she first filmed Snowden. Stepping onto an elevator one day, she bumped into actor Zachary Quinto and a Hollywood film crew working on the Oliver Stone version of the Snowden story, due out this spring, featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Snowden, Quinto as Greenwald, and Melissa Leo playing the role of Poitras. (Poitras is not involved with the film.)
Hollywood remains a strange kind of otherworld. Several colleagues told me stories of Poitras doing red-carpet interviews at awards shows, patiently enduring questions about her wardrobe while also talking, in the least obnoxious way possible, about civil liberties. “It’s always a contradictory experience,” Poitras says with a laugh. “I’ve been nominated twice now [for Academy Awards], both times for films about dark and depressing events. And then you have to get all dressed up and go.” Her go-to designer, she adds, is German Annette Görtz. Poitras accepted her Oscar last year with a nervous, gracious dignity, thanking her many collaborators but also taking the opportunity to remind the audience that Snowden’s revelations exposed what she sees as not just “a threat to our privacy but to our democracy itself.”
She and her Citizenfour crew then practically closed down the Vanity Fair after-party. The mood was celebratory, but what she felt, more than anything, was relief. “There were so many potential bad outcomes for so many people,” she says now. “It was pretty extraordinary that this was the outcome.” Coughlin recalls sitting on a couch at 4:00 a.m. next to Poitras and her Oscar. “I turned to her and had a kind of ‘Holy shit’ moment, like, ‘Look at where you are. You could have been in jail, or you could be at the Vanity Fair Oscar party!’ ”
Despite the hubbub and occasional glitz of the last year, Poitras remains solidly devoted to documentary filmmaking. “It’s a way to express who people are and also bigger things—what situation they are in—and that’s really powerful,” she says. “I love it. Like, I really, really love it.” She seems wistful, recalling how working onFlag Wars initially seized hold of her. “It was a surprise. I’d just assumed that as an artist or a creative person, I would always work in a solitary way.”
In the time I spend with Poitras, this moment would strike me as the most touching. All these years later, she still seems genuinely surprised by what she’s found in herself. She’s an inward person who has thrust herself outward into the world, perhaps against her nature. It’s a stretch, maybe a painful one, but inside that stretch is Poitras’s particular genius—the solitary artist who plants herself in the center of unfolding history. “I’m a different person, holding a camera. I’m normally pretty shy. I don’t actually love to travel,” she tells me. “But I love doing this work. And when I’m doing work, I have to put those things aside.”
We are done with our drinks. It’s a Friday evening, and the restaurant is now crowded. Poitras picks up the two tote bags she’s brought from her studio, stuffed with work she plans to tackle over the weekend. “I love weekends,” she says. “They’re quiet. I can think. I get so much done.” It’s the most revealing disclosure she’s made about her personal life yet. Outside, dusk has fallen. Before we part ways, I ask Poitras which direction she’s heading, what neighborhood she lives in. She gives me a friendly hug and then a last, enigmatic smile. “I’d rather not say,” she says. “I hope you’ll understand.” And as she heads off to someplace I’ll never know, I realize that I do.
A VICE News investigation has found evidence that sophisticated surveillance equipment that spies on people's phones is being used across London, and uncovered a growing black market for the technology worldwide.
Signs of IMSI catchers — also known as stingrays or cell-site simulators — were found at several locations in the British capital, including UK parliament, a peaceful anti-austerity protest, and the Ecuadorian embassy.
A former senior surveillance insider also confirmed to VICE News that they have been used by UK police.
The portable devices are typically used by state law enforcement. They monitor thousands of phones at a time, and are capable of intercepting calls, text messages, and emails.
After going undercover, however, VICE News was offered an IMSI catcher for $15,000 from a company that claimed to have sold the devices to private companies and state law enforcement all over the world — including Russia, Africa, and the US.
VICE News could not determine whether the signals it detected in London belonged to state apparatus, in part because of a UK law enforcement policy of refusing to discuss IMSI catchers on national security grounds.
IMSI catchers work by pretending to be mobile phone base stations, which connect our phones to the network. Phones connecting to the devices surrender their unique identifier (IMSI) and can be monitored.
However, they have sparked controversy among civil liberties campaigners because they automatically harvest information from all phones in a given radius — including those used by innocent people.
VICE News worked with global surveillance watchdog Privacy International over several months to accumulate evidence of IMSI catchers.
Police at the Million Mask March in London, November 5, 2015. (Photo by Daniel Bateman/VICE News)
IMSI Catchers in London Privacy International's IMSI catcher detection equipment identified suspicious signals at several locations around London.
At an anti-austerity demonstration on June 20, which attracted thousands of largely peaceful protestors, the equipment detected a mobile phone tower that appeared to be moving.
It was a base station that showed "massive variance in signal strength" at different points of the march, said Richard Tynan, a technologist for Privacy International. It suggested that an IMSI catcher was inside the protest, logging campaigners' phones.
At the Ecuadorian embassy, home to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange since August 2012, we witnessed another clue: a base station switching between network providers in rapid succession.
"Each base station is supposed to remain configured to only broadcast its own network ID," said Tynan. "Broadcasting a spoofed network ID is a hallmark of IMSI catchers."
Watch the VICE News documentary, Phone Hackers: Britain's Secret Surveillance:
The equipment also seemed to be in use close to St. Paul's Cathedral, where a base station was configured in an unusual way that was consistent with Tynan's understanding of IMSI catchers. The signal was also at its strongest level, but no base stations were visible.
At Westminster, an extremely strong signal was detected at the Cromwell Green entrance to parliament. The base station should have been visible — but there were no obvious phone towers, and none marked on the latest available records, which date to 2012.
VICE News asked the House of Commons whether any phone signal boosters exist at this location. A press officer told us there was none and, after additional enquiries, instructed us to ask under freedom of information legislation. This was rejected on the grounds that disclosure of the information "would be likely to prejudice the prevention and detection of crime."
Suricatch: the IMSI catcher debuted by Groupe SSI at Milipol, Paris. (Photo by VICE News)
State Surveillance for Sale In an airy expo hall to the north of Paris, state and company representatives are browsing row after row of defense equipment. People in smart suits wander the aisles, some sipping glasses of champagne, occasionally pausing to toy with cutting-edge firearms.
This is Milipol: one of the largest state security fairs in the world. Taking place in the third week of November 2015, the event is one of a small number of opportunities for the naturally reclusive surveillance industry to advertise its wares.
The so-called lawful interception industry is growing rapidly, with worldwide sales estimated to reach $1.3 billion by 2019, according to Markets and Markets research firm.
Groupe Sécurité Service Industrie's most prominent display was a brand new IMSI catcher, receiving its debut at Milipol. This merged video and phone surveillance, and had been well received at the fair, according to sales representative Philippe Grison.
The 35,000-euro ($38,000) "pocket catcher" was very small and could be held by an individual, or set up in a box or a car, he said. It could catch information from more than 1,000 phones at a time.
The company had "very good relations with UK companies and enforcement agencies," Grison said.
According to Grison's colleague, another of their tools — a "situational awareness platform" that did not directly involve lawful interception — was being used by Birmingham, Merseyside, Thames Valley, and Leicester police forces.
"We have very good clients," the salesman added.
"As far as we're concerned our service is to provide law enforcement agencies with the technology to do their job," added Grison. "The way to use it depends on the regulations of their country."
Protestors surround a flare at the Million Mask March in London on November 5, 2015. (Photo by Daniel Bateman/VICE News)
"National Security" VICE News sent freedom of information requests to police forces around the UK requesting information about their use of IMSI catchers. Yet the response was almost always the same — police would neither confirm nor deny that they use the technology on grounds of national security.
One former senior surveillance inspector told VICE News, however, that the devices have been used by UK police.
Sam Lincoln was the Chief Surveillance Inspector with the Office of Surveillance Commissioners — the body that oversees surveillance — from 2006-13. "It is a fairly common tactic that is used by police. And certainly from a legal perspective there is no bar," he said. "They would usually be used for locating fugitives, missing persons, identifying the location of subjects of interest, to trigger other parts of a covert operation."
Lincoln added that the devices might also have been used at protests: "Without talking about specifics, certainly there appears to be enough evidence in the public domain to suggest that they have been used in that way before, yes."
Getting a surveillance authorization for a device like an IMSI catcher is "not a straight rubber stamping job," he added. But there are too few inspectors reviewing the paperwork, he said. "We were identifying plenty of paperwork which some might view as invalid."
Black Market The sale of powerful surveillance technology to repressive regimes and private individuals is regulated by a 41-country agreement called the Wassenaar arrangement. Several of the Milipol exhibitors expressed concern over a growing black market for the equipment, however, fueled by unregulated tech companies in China and Hong Kong.
VICE News approached a company selling IMSI catchers using an online marketplace. Posing as a consultant acting for a wealthy client, we asked if it would sell the technology to us, making it clear that we were not state representatives.
An organization calling itself HK Medsourcing, based in Hong Kong, agreed to sell us an IMSI catcher for $15,000-20,000. "It can catch around 1,200 numbers per minute," said salesman Edward Tian over Skype.
Using an IMSI catcher in the UK is illegal, so Tian said he could ship the device as a repeater — a mobile signal booster — to stop it from being confiscated by UK customs.
"Our company was started many years ago in a business of manufacturing mobile signal repeaters, you know, which are to boost the signal," he said. "We export it in the same name. Because they are, you know, in many aspects they are very similar. It's radio frequency equipment so we claim it's a repeater."
VICE News repeated that we were not state law enforcement or a dealer of IMSI catchers. "We are not very clear about the local law, about the recommendations," said Tian, "so you need to assure us that you are using it legally. And we make arrangements according to your requirements. That's not a problem."
The company said it has not sold any equipment to the UK before. But they had made sales to North America, South America, Africa, Russia, Israel, and "some south-east Asian countries." The week before they had attended a tender in Bangladesh — where security forces have been accused of extrajudicial killings by Human Rights Watch.
It also claimed to have sold technology to private companies. "A trade company or an investigation company," said Tian. He assured us over email that the device would be able to intercept text messages, but later expressed concerns about providing this capability to a private individual.
"Many people ask but at the moment we are a little bit reluctant. We are thinking about it because maybe some, the American CIA or anything or somebody follow us, we will be in trouble," Tian said. "We can talk through emails."
The IMSI Catcher offered to VICE News.
The UK In the UK new oversight of surveillance is being considered in the draft Investigatory Powers Bill, but the current regime is "almost completely ineffective," according to David Davis, a senior backbench Conservative MP.
"I think the whole approach of IMSI catchers, which is a block collection of people's telephone information, is a general cause for concern," said Davis. "Largely because the public at large assume that interception of communications is the sort of thing that is done very specifically.
"The simple truth is there are intelligence agencies, police agencies in other countries who are our allies, who are dealing with the same threats who are much more open about it," he added.
A spokesperson for network provider Vodafone told VICE News it used "advanced technology systems" to protect customer data and did not allow any form of access to customer data by the authorities "unless we are legally obliged to do so."
They added: "There are wide-ranging legal restrictions prohibiting disclosure of any aspect of the technical and operating systems and processes used when complying with agency and authority demands. In some countries, it is unlawful even to reveal that such systems and processes exist at all."
A spokesperson for network provider O2 told VICE News that there it has no agreements in place with government or security services for the deployment of IMSI catchers.
"We do actively monitor our networks for a variety of threats, interference, and disruption and have never detected such equipment operating on our network," they added.
A spokesperson for EE responded to emails, but failed to deliver a comment.
As is often the case with contemporary heroes, Edward Snowden has become a popular trend among creative types such as graffiti artists, musicians, writers and even filmmakers. Meanwhile, more down-to-earth people are hurrying to cash in on his fame.
The former NSA contractor who revealed the secret US snooping program, Snowden is viewed as a hero by some and a traitor by others. It’s been a year since he’s been hiding in Russia under conditions of temporary asylum, but his image has also been spotted in France, the UK, and even in the US – where he faces 30 years in prison.
Many street and graffiti artists have found their inspiration in the image of the ex-CIA employee who had courage to tell the truth about illegal techniques used by American and some other governments to spy on millions of people.
A mysterious artwork appeared earlier this year on the side of a house in Cheltenham, not far from the headquarters of British intelligence agency GCHQ. The guerilla graffiti artist known as Banksy is believed to be behind the mural depicting three spy-style dressed figures eavesdropping on a street phone.
“Truth is coming and cannot be stopped.” That is how British artist Sarah Lynn Mayhew (aka SLM) entitled the portrait she painted on a subway wall in the northern quarter of Manchester city center.
Snowden’s image gazes down at visitors to an open-air contemporary art museum, the Adobe of Chaos, not far from Lyon, France. That’s how Thierry Ehrmann, a French businessman-turned-artist, paid his tribute to the American whistleblower.
And Snowden’s glasses have become a trademark. He says that people in Russia mainly recognize him when he goes to computer stores, but not when he’s shopping for food or looking at magazines.
In a recent interview with Brazilian TV, Snowden refrained from answering whether he wears a disguise when he goes out.
Snowden’s temporary asylum expires in August. The NSA leaker is certain that if he returned to the US he would be tried unfairly. He said he is happy in Russia, but would love to live in Brazil.
The image of the information-era dissident was used in various forms of art, but his revelations have also boosted world-wide protests against mass surveillance. Placards and posters with the “Yes We Scan” slogan – a parody from Obama campaign’s “Yes We Can” – have inspired a meme.
For business-minded people, Snowden’s popularity is yet another chance to earn some money. Just like Argentinian revolutionary Che Guevara, Snowden’s image was replicated on T-shirts, mugs, buttons and all sorts of things that many people like buying as a way to have their say on something.
SCREENSHOT FROM ETSY.COM
SCREENSHOT FROM ZAZZLE.CO.UK
While famed American film director Oliver Stone is now planning to make a film based on Snowden’s story, dozens of music video clips inspired by him are already circulating on the net.
Good morning. It’s an honour to be here. I can’t thank the organizers enough, starting with Michael, Steve and Sharif, for their extremely persistent, kind, generous, determined effort to bring me back. I found it a little difficult to believe that it had been ten years. It felt to me as though it were a week or two ago that I was floating in a hot-air balloon over Canberra with Tridge and Jeremy Allison. And it had, indeed, been a decade. I think, in part, I found it hard to believe because I haven’t had much more than one or two days off since then. [Laughter] We have all been very busy changing the world. And it has been my pleasure to ride along. But ten years it has been, and I am deeply, deeply honoured to be back. I will also thank you in advance for putting up with my heavily-accented English.
The decade through which we have passed certainly involved an awful lot of making good software. There’s been no shortage of making good software in the last decade. And it has involved at least some good-enough lawyering - in the sense that we are in way less trouble than we were back then - except the trouble we have deliberately made for ourselves. And we have fewer, if any, real devoted enemies and they are weaker than they were in almost every respect. [Applause]
The problem we were confronting ten years ago with respect to patent law, which we had been worrying about already for fifteen years, blossomed into the full-scale patent war that we have been warning industry for a generation now that we’re going to have. And tens of billions of dollars in value have been burned up and thrown away. And the process of innovating in our industry has been deeply and unhappily distorted by the attempts to use state-created monopolies to slow down the path of innovation by incumbents who needed to slow the clock, if not stop it altogether. And yet, at the same time, precisely because industry found itself in the terrible conditions that we had warned them about, we also acquired an awful lot of help. And the worst of the law around the world began to change.
Richard Stallman and I spent many years discussing various improbable and, ultimately, inoperable plans to create a free-software-protecting patent pool which would allow us to sit at the table with at least some chips and to perform the task of negotiating for freedom’s right to invent and freedom to operate and, of course, as Tridge kept telling me, the freedom to invent around - which is the most important freedom, if you’re as good an inventor as he is.
So we thought, again and again, about how to accomplish it. But without the fear of God in industry, it could not be done. And now the Open Invention Network provides very much the kind of community patent-defense, based around pooled assets, to be used to defend friends in trouble, that we had always hoped we would find a way to create.
Similarly, as the patent war went on, judges began to figure out that there was something wrong with the patent system. It was performing pathologically in the United States in precisely the pathological ways that we had warned everybody that it would. And the judges began to lose their enthusiasm for the subject. In the course of the last three years, we have won three unanimous decisions in the United States Supreme Court significantly restricting the ability to patent algorithms and other forms of abstract ideas. [Applause]
And so we find ourselves in the very extraordinary condition that, although the patent war is still waging, and the effort to create state-created monopolies in the behavior of mobile devices is apparently inexhaustible in some people’s view, the likelihood that the most stressful patent systems in the world will ever be used against free software developers is disappearing.
The tools of self-defence are not automatic. We haven’t arrived at a condition in which nobody tries to apply the patent law to the sort of stuff we invent. But the playing field is much more level. Our community-building activities across the space between profit-making industrial parties and non-profit-making software experimenters have tightened substantially in very good ways. I’m not in a position to say that we have no problem. I am in a position to say that the nature of the problem in those ten years has altered because the world has altered.
I am much more interested this morning in talking about the ways in which the world has altered. But, as a sort of ten-year catch-up, I will tell you what the next decade will present in the way of difficulty for us in this connection. The largest economy in the world is not now the economy of the United States. And, in another ten years, the most important patent system in the world with respect to IT industries will be the patent system of the People’s Republic of China, which will contain enormous numbers of statutory monopolies in a society without the working rule of law - unless we manage to achieve the rule of law in the People’s Republic of China in the next ten years, which does not seem at present particularly likely. This problem will afflict us, that is to say, the people who actually make the technology, comparatively lightly. It will affect our industrial partners enormously. And their strategic responses to the problem they will face will be the most interesting of our challenges with respect to the patent system in the next ten years.
As was the case in the last round, we are thinking more about the nature of their problems than they are - because they are dealing day-to-day with the problems of running their businesses. But if we are all lucky enough to be standing here ten years from now, if we are talking about the patent system and its effect on our work, that’s what we will be talking about.
In the next decade, it will be very, very risky, probably too risky, for a shark to come and try to bite my clients or their comrades and friends throughout the community. We do get bit. I won’t tell you that we don’t. Every year now, we face a couple of opportunities for patent assertion by parties who think that stopping some free software project from doing something that it wants to do is in that business’s interest. But, in the world in which we now live, we have a baseball bat. We can swing it at the nose of the shark, and that does actually discourage biting quite substantially. Like every other thing in this world, it all happens in the dark, under the surface of the water. You can’t see it occurring. But the lawyers with whom I work - and I - we know. And we can say that, what used to feel radically unsafe to us, thanks to the businesses and the communities, which have pulled together over this last decade, has made an enormous difference.
So, in the last decade, we made a lot of wonderful software. And we did some good work around the world in abating nuisances that threatened us. But more important, I think, than the software that we made, the enormously important innovations in politics and society that we were creating alongside the software, began to take hold in the world.
Of course, it’s true, that everything from ice cream to weaponry is now described as “open source”. But, if that’s an indication of anything, it’s an indication, as usual, that Stallman was right. You should be careful what words you use, because other people might borrow them. And so, I’m going to continue to talk about this stuff as free software here this morning, if you don’t mind, and you can translate it into … [Applause] anything you please. But, the fact that people took some language, and went and applied it to their products, and certified themselves open source this or that - what was really important was that people started to understand what distinguishes twenty-first century social organizations from twentieth century ones.
Industrial society loved hierarchy. It had to love hierarchy. Its metaphors – the army of the unemployed or the industrial workforce. Hierarchy was intrinsic to twentieth century organizations at their strongest, as was secrecy (or, at least, obscurity). But the very forms of activity that we created - the ways in which we have done what we have done - came to be an important lesson to the world in how twenty-first century organizations work. They are distinguished by three elements:
And these principles are not ones we imposed on the technical work we did. They are conditions that grew out of the technical work we did.
The relationship between our activity and transparency is, of course, so intimate that you can’t describe us without describing the concept of transparency. We don’t just let people see, we enable them to learn. And so our transparency is not merely that of a business with a big show-window. Rupert Murdoch puts a big glass wall in the front of a television studio in downtown Manhattan. It’s transparent in Mr. Murdoch’s sense - but not in ours.
Transparency, for us, means more than just a free show you can look at. It means a porous community that you can join, which is why participation also is not merely something that we have a value for, but something that makes all the value that we make. It is the ability to participate that’s the outcome of the determination to be transparent in the deep sense in which we are transparent.
And it is, of course, the case that we don’t merely do collaborative non-hierarchical structures, we invented them. A weekend project of Linus Torvald’s called Git. We remember the little tiff that created the need for Git. But we can ask ourselves a question, ten years haven’t gone by – “Where is BitKeeper now?” [Laughter]
The onset of real distributed version-control is the technology of non-hierarchical collaboration. It isn’t merely that we said we like non-hierarchical collaboration, or we believe in egalitarian access to technology. The technology we made has taken over the making of software, because it has demonstrated that non-hierarchical collaboration is how you have to make everything; otherwise, you are incurring inefficiency and setting up for failure.
So what we did over the past ten years – and, for me, that means not just Canberra in 2005, but where I was in Berlin, in the summer of 2004, talking about “Die Gedanken sind Frei” and the form of politics which we believe in – which isn’t Utopian revolution, it’s proof-of-concept plus running-code equals social and political progress. That has taken over the world in the past decade.
Sure, nobody can live without using our software. Sure, there isn’t any longer a business on earth that doesn’t need us. Sure, even Microsoft now recognizes that our way of software making won. [Applause]
But what is deeper, is that our structures of social engagement, our form of politics, that is, our question - “How do people live together in the cities?” – has also won. It is now clear, increasingly clear, to states and massive industrial organizations, and even the people who hold all the gold bars and would love to hold all the Bitcoins - it is now obvious to everybody, that the particular structures of twenty-first century politics - what makes the world of now and our human future different - is the forms of social interaction and organization of enterprise in the sense of human invention and self-improvement that we have stood for. And this, more than anything else, I think, is what we have done for our colleagues, our communities, the rest of the human race in the last ten years.
If there has been good news about politics in the world in the last decade - we did it. And if there has been only bad news about politics in the last decade around the world - it’s not our fault, we tried.
However, what has also happened, because of the broad understanding that the route to better politics in the human future, the route to better, more efficient, more humane enterprise, lies in our form of sharing. Because, precisely because, of the breadth of our success, we now also begin to understand what our common values are about.
We are, after all, an exceedingly diverse community. We bridge the entire gap between vi and emacs, for example. [Laughter] We also, as it happens, speak every language, and are part of every faith, and play every sport, and climb everything that can be climbed, and dive under everything that can be dived under. And we are culturally extremely discrepant, including in the extent that we self-consciously believe that what we do is political as well as technical - a fact that some of us are immediately conscious of all the time, and another, equally important and powerfully inventive bunch of us, tend to keep a little bit further at a distance.
But, as I say, it doesn’t really matter how far you feel the political engagement that has been added to our work, because the forms of political engagement which grow organically and necessarily out of our technology, the way it works, and what that means about how people interact with one another - those principles of transparency, participation, non-hierarchical collaboration - they are themselves a social and political program.
And whether one thinks of it as - free software, free society - or not, the challenges in which we now live - are challenges which grow out of our own self-made, home-grown, DIY, we hacked it together, political aspirations, for transparency, for participation, and for collaborative, non-hierarchical self-government.
We face something now we are fortunate enough to be able to name in a word, and the word is “Snowden”.
For those of us who live in the United States, there is, of course, a complicated, dual-meaning concerning Mr. Snowden, because national security is a thing that worries people one nation at a time. And so, although I live in a global environment, in which the meaning of Mr. Snowden is untrammelled by any question of “Who was he spying on?” and “Did he do a bad thing?” - in my home society, of course, there is a lot of such discussion – which is why, when I want to write about Mr. Snowden, or the consequences of his activities I am so grateful to Alan Rusbridger of The Guardian for giving me a place in which to do the work. But outside the boundaries of my home society, the meaning of Mr. Snowden’s activities is far less complicated. What we have learned, as a result of what he has taught us in the past year and a half, is that, even in a very rare society, with strong legal controls – or, apparently strong legal controls – over listening, there is no longer any hope that we can directly prevent power - whether it is private power or public power - from turning the Net into a procedure for totalitarianism. [Applause]
We are now living in the question, for which people like my comrade, Mr. Stallman, and my former client, Phillip Zimmermann, have been trying to prepare us for a generation.
I walked in to Mr. Zimmermann’s life in an email message in the summer of 1991. I saw PGP appear on the Net on a July evening on a Fido bulletin board in New York City and I wrote him an email message and I said “Congratulations, you’ve done a wonderful thing. You’re going to change the world. You’re also going to get in a shitload of trouble [Laughter] and when it happens I can help you. Here is who I am.”
And it was because I was working for Mr. Zimmermann and a story appeared in The New York Times by John Markoff about what I was doing that Richard Stallman first got in touch with me. And that was how Richard and I professionally met.
Now let us take ourselves back to 1991. And let’s imagine that Mr. Zimmermann does not have adequate legal help and that PGP is intimidated out of existence by the United States government. We now live in a world without PGP - which means we also live in a world without SSH - which means we also live in a world without my client’s SSL, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And I think you would agree with me, that if that’s the world we lived in now, we would be facing the irreversible movement towards irresistible despotism, towards political power coming into existence in one or more places around the world that would have the power to predict the behavior of people, and to prevent the coalescence of political dissent, decapitate movements, and create a kind of immortality of un-freedom.
There are, of course, a lot of people who had nothing to do with making software to share who have helped us to prevent that from happening. But we must, I think, understand that we now live in the world we were afraid of. And that, what stands between us and the things which we were the most afraid of, is ourselves, our own inventions - which we have now a responsibility not only to use ourselves and to improve and to keep vital, but to spread as widely as we can, and as effectively as we can.
We are required, no question about it, to have the wisdom of serpents, if we are to use the technologies we have invented in order to prevent the fastening on the human race of a despotism it will not be able to shake.
We are moving towards a single exoskeletal nervous system embracing the whole of humanity. And the neuroanatomy of that system is constructed out of what we have called “the Internet” - and we will soon, in another generation, simply be able to call the nervous system of the human race. Whether it is built to be controlled at its endpoints by the things quaintly known as “individuals” - or whether it is built to be directed from centres of scrutiny and data mining and prediction - is the political decision we make for the future.
We, in this room, will not determine what happens to the climate of the planet. But we will determine the physiology of the nervous system of humanity – the functional behavior of the everything we are building.
And, as was foreseen by some of our most wonderful crackpot visionaries, at the beginning of this process – I need mention no names [Laughter] – but, as was foreseen by the most wonderful of our crackpot visionaries – freedom itself depends on how we make use of the technologies we are creating.
If the politics that we think about as characteristic of the ways we work – transparency, participation, enablement, non-hierarchical collaboration – are to survive the onset of the immense data society, with listeners inside everything – if that set of values is to survive, we must continue the process of building the political and social theory that emerges from our tech.
I’m not going to say we all, therefore, become primarily aware of the political significance of what we do - but it is part of the wisdom of every project. It is part of the skills that we all bring together to every group of which we are a part - that some of us are always thinking, “How do we turn this to the political advantage, the social advantage, of the desire of the human race for each individual mind to grow and invent freely?”
And we must understand that the forms of legal control, the forms of government power, that will now concern us most, are not the handing out of real estate in the patent offices. They’re not the questions of how much copyright law you can have over interface declarations.
(Though I must say that now that the Supreme Court has delayed for another period the decision to take Google against Oracle we could find ourselves in that situation once the Solicitor General of the United States has weighed in. But this is lawyers work. We do lawyer’s work, right. I train people to do lawyer’s work in this world. And we will handle all of that. But that is not where the real political, legal, and social action now is).
Mr. Snowden did for us crucial work. You see the numbers. Sixty-one percent of the part of the human race connected to the Internet is aware of Mr. Snowden and what he means. And between thirty-nine and forty-five percent of that nearly two-thirds of the human race connected to the Internet wants to do something to improve its privacy. Alright. They do. And that means they want to meet us - more badly than they ever did before. They didn’t want to meet us before because people who make proprietary IT showed them it was quote convenient close quote and they went for it. It was convenient. We, of course, were not convenient. I don’t remember why it was we weren’t convenient. I think it was the command line or something. But we weren’t convenient, OK. So lots of people - their eyes glazed over. They were our friends. They were our brothers and sisters. They were our parents. But their eyes glazed over when we talked about it. No more, no more. No more, no more. Everybody wants to meet us now. And we need to put on our nice vest and go out and politely explain to them how we save freedom together. “It’s very convenient to save freedom,” we’re going to tell them, right? “If you give away your freedom for convenience, we will have trouble getting it back for you. But now would be an awfully convenient time to help us embed freedom in the network we are building. Your children will thank you.”
We know about “network effects”. We don’t mean “Everybody has to use Office because everybody has to use Office because otherwise how will you open the Office documents.” We mean that it is hard to sustain freedom in a technological environment which has been engineered to take it away, and that there is strength in numbers. We can make even people who loving controlling their users decide to spoof MAC addresses, right? We can make people who used to be not-on-our-side about crypto encrypt the stuff on the flash memory in the phone. But what we cannot do, without the universalization of the way we work, is to prove to the rest of the human race that technology that anyone can copy, modify, and share is technology which preserves privacy, autonomy, and freedom - and that other software will not.
Nobody in business is going to use cybersecurity they can’t read anymore. Once again, as usual, it is not the expert opinion of the world that we can’t reach. When Mr. Snowden revealed the Bullrun program, that is, the effort by NSA to break commercially-significant crypto, I was having a conversation with an analyst who has been very much on the side of the three-letter agencies for decades. And I said to him, “You know, the problem with what Mr. Snowden has not just taught us, it’s not that he has proved that you were wrong for twenty years. That’s a tiny problem. The problem Mr. Snowden really poses for you is that he has proved that we were right for twenty years. And that’s a very different thing altogether.”
We were the people who said, “You can’t trust what you can’t read.” We thought we were making an obvious point. We didn’t quite understand why it was hard for other people to figure out that you can’t trust what you can’t read - but they figured it out now. If they’re in the business of trusting on behalf of tens of millions of customers or users, they’re in the business now of not trusting what they can’t read. And security through obscurity in the real-world of professional IT is over.
But that doesn’t mean that what has happened to the users - those disempowered users, whose technology sells them out all the time - nothing has happened for them yet. I said half a decade ago now that we needed the First Law of Robotics - and we needed it in a helluva hurry, because we’re all carrying robots around with us everywhere I go. And they don’t obey the First Law at all. They hurt us all the time. And so I have to say again, what I was saying there at HOPE, if we don’t make the First Law of Robotics, nobody is going to make it. If we don’t get it in the middle of everything, it won’t be there. And Big Power in the world - whether you think of it as Big Economic Power or you think of it as Big Government Power or you think of it as Big Listener Power - Big Power in the world is fundamentally committed against the First Law. Big Power in the world wants the devices to work for It. And if it weren’t for us, they’d succeed. And the human race would pay a price which might last for generations.
So, we have to take ourselves seriously. That’s hard for us, ‘cause we’re hackers, and intrinsically we don’t take ourselves seriously, anymore than we engage in hierarchical non-collaborative development, right? I mean, a sense of irony about self is what makes it possible to do the technical work. And I will tell you a secret, it makes it possible to do the lawyering, too. When we sit around the conference table on Wednesday afternoons, still having the firm lunch that Karen Sandler taught me that I ought to have, I tell the lawyers who work for me that the only indispensable part of our law practice is irony. Because it’s only irony that keeps us from doing stuff that’s dumb - like going and suing rich people and letting them grind us into power, regardless of the merits, and things like that. We have to hack our way to a form of legal engagement that works for us and only ironic ones will do. So naturally we don’t take ourselves terribly seriously. I’m probably the only one here who has the degree of un-self-conscious willingness to take myself seriously that causes me to get up every morning and put on a suit for heaven’s sake. And even that’s too much for the ironists in the room, by and large. But we do have to take ourselves seriously.
We have to take ourselves seriously. We’re not now in the prelude to the Star Wars we foresaw would happen - we’re in it. We’re in it. We have made what little it is that protected us against disaster already.
We are, why everything doesn’t consist of X.509 certificates issued by corrupt authorities.
We are, why not just distributed version-control but the web of trust, right.
We are, why non-hierarchical modes of communicating safely and securely and protecting people’s privacy against the data mungers.
We are, why all of that is possible at all.
And that’s terrific. It’s wonderful. We did a great job. And therefore, we are now in the middle of what we really feared. And we have to keep doing it.
When I read Jim Dwyer’s wonderful book about the young men who started making Diaspora called “More Awesome than Money” – the part that I was interested in, of course, was not the part about me – I knew the part about me. And it wasn’t really about Ilya and Raffi and Max and … because I knew them too. It was about the understanding that, when those four young men decided to try to go out there, and fix social networking, and make it behave ethically - they were immediately surrounded by communities of spirit and material help. It wasn’t just Kickstarter money, it wasn’t just hacker space they were offered, it wasn’t just the beauty of the Silicon Valley disruptor machine looking for young people to disrupt things with - it was the whole social order around them.
But Ilya was a wonderful young man and his death must not have been in vain. As Aaron Swartz’s death must not have been in vain. We have, in ten years, had casualties. We have let people hurt our people, because we needed to.
And so we have to take ourselves seriously - because we, too, now have gravestones to care for- and young heroes who gave their lives for stuff we care about, whose sacrifices we have to honour, as we have young people all around us who will need us soon.
There isn’t a lot of public opinion data in any society about the young teenagers. They’re not voters, so they’re not polled. And they don’t buy enough, in most societies, to be worth marketing to. But everywhere you look, at public opinion data around the world, attitudes about Mr. Snowden, in those under eighteen years old, are decisively more positive than those of older people in each society. Our youngest kin are deeply affected by Mr. Snowden and his message.
I kid my students by saying that this is in part because Edward Snowden bears a wonderful resemblance to Harry Potter. [Laughter] But it isn’t only that, of course. Young people are now inhabiting the planet who have watched what has happened to their older siblings. They have watched the Facebook-ization of human civilization. They have watched the crossing-the-street-while-texting-and-letting-everybody-else-take-your-text-straight-out-of-the-air behavior - and they’re not absolutely happy about it.
And so we have a crowd coming towards us. Ten years ago, I said in Berlin, that we were simply keeping dinner warm until the kids came home. The GNU Project was thirty years old last September 2013. And Edward Snowden was thirty years old in November. That was the first of our generation coming home. The beginning of the meaning of GNU.
Now we are in the second era - in which the larger world that does not make our software or understand why they should use our software - has come to an understanding of the principle that the freedom of the Net is the freedom of people. And that the Net is made of software and it works the way someone makes it work.
This is our big moment, ok. This is what we struggled for. I don’t mean, what we invented. When we struggle with code, we’re just struggling to make something neat. But when we go beyond the making something neat, this is what we’re in it for. We’re in it for the ability to help the people around us. We’ve known that, since we started taking our own temperatures fifteen years ago, and we began asking “Why do we make what we make?”
And it turned out that we make what we make in order to learn, and do neat stuff, and improve our skills - and to help other people.
And this is the big moment, where all the skill-making, and all the learning we have done, and all the neat stuff we have made - the rubber now meets the road with respect to whether we can use it to help humanity stay free.
This is what the last ten years did – they brought us here, to this intersection, to the moment when we can figure out whether, as the human race assembles its nervous system, it works for the data miners or it works for the people.
This is the moment, where we figure out whether we can deliver, not just for ourselves, but for everybody – whether we can turn the ability to have transparency, participation, non-hierarchical collaboration – whether we can turn that into not only a really good way of making software, but a really good way of confronting problems that people in the world are now sure are there – that they now understand, that they want help with, and that we, we alone, we are the people capable of delivering for them the freedom that they need. If we don’t, it will not happen.
We, through our own efforts, have narrowly escaped a couple of catastrophes for … in the past ten years. We have received, thanks to Mr. Snowden’s efforts, we have received a lot of information about what we did right. We have received a lot of information about where, even unlimited resources, devoted to breaking our view of the Net, have failed, because of what we made. We have received an awful lot of encouragement about our ability to survive an onslaught of capitalist aggressions, the patent wars, the bollocksing of copyright law by the entertainment industries and so on.
We have demonstrated our vitality. We need not demonstrate our inventiveness - that we demonstrate every single day. But we are now merging into the larger movement for the freedom of the Net. And we are about to demonstrate whether we can carry it. Not boss it. Not control it. Not even lead it from in front.
But we do have the opportunity to be the plumbing of the great Internet freedom movement of the twenty-first century. We have the opportunity to set its technological conditions of success. We have the opportunity to prevent it from achieving failure. And, of course, since every sysadmin here knows that she or he really runs the business and without them it won’t work – if we shouldn’t be too unwilling to recognize that this isn’t such an unusual position for us, right?
Everybody’s power runs on our plumbing. Whether it’s freedom running on our plumbing or un-freedom running on our plumbing isn’t up to them. It’s up to us.
We have plenty to do. We are going to gain plenty of help. Indian society is going to come very much in our direction over the next several years and with it we are going to gain power of numbers and demographic force beyond our previous wildest dreams. But 1.6 billion people will still live in China under conditions of un-freedom in a world in which the Net is assumed to be a system of social control. And the world’s most powerful constitutional democracy - possessing more force of listening than everybody else put together - has abandoned the rule of law over listening and has begun plunging humanity towards darkness. And the consumer economy has come to depend upon data mining for advertising - which means it depends upon surveillance to make its living. And it will do what it takes to make its living because that its right, its power and its glory. But not ours.
We’ve a great deal to do. If we don’t do it, everything stops. I don’t mean everything doesn’t run. It runs just fine. But freedom stops. You know what it will mean. You know what it is to have a listener inside every device, and everything in life inside every device, and every child hooked up to the monitor all the time - everywhere she goes, everything she learns, everything she reads, everything she listens to - all marked down and ready to be calculated and correlated and manipulated.
That’s not the human race we meant to have. That’s not the way we meant the Net to work. That’s not the way we run our own stuff. And it mustn’t be the way we let other people run it.
So here we are: free software, free society – for real. We’re playing for keeps now. Humanity depends upon you.
I've been using Tor for more than a decade. I travel all the time, and often find myself connected to manifestly untrustworthy networks -- from the nets at hacker conferences to the one the Chinese government provided for our use at a World Economic Forum event in Dalian. Tor is my assurance that I'm browsing safely, privately and anonymously. When I do investigative journalism work on national security subjects, my go-to first line of defense is Torbrowser.
That why we at Boing Boing operate a high speed, high quality exit node. By the way, just this year we received two law enforcement requests for records relating to that node, and despite all the doomsaying about how the cops would punish you for operating an anonymizing tool, in both cases, we sent polite letters explaining that we don't keep logs, and in both cases, the cops returned a polite thanks and went away.
I donate to Tor, and I trust Tor, but even if I didn't trust 'em, I'd still use it. The great thing about free/open projects like Tor is that they're designed to work even if the people who make them don't agree with you or want what's best for you.
Ben Wizner, in thinking about the ways that Tor facilitates his work, is very clear: “It’s not an overstatement to say that secure technology such as Tor has made the ACLU’s work with Edward Snowden possible, “ he says.
Like Laura Poitras, using encryption was a learning process for Wizner, facilitated by key teachers, the first of whom was Laura herself.
“I was someone who went through most of my life unaware of these tools,” he says. “Laura (Poitras) came to my office in 2011 and installed Adium for me. `This is how we are going to communicate,” she said. “And this will help you communicate with the rest of the world as well.”
Jacob Appelbaum, Chris Soghoian, Renata Avila and Daniel Kahn Gillmor were all instrumental to Wizner as a he followed a similar learning curve to Poitras, quickly becoming familiar with Tor, PGP, Tails and Signal for many aspects of his work as Director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology project. It was his next teacher that, as he says, “gets us to the heart of the story. Starting in July 2013 I had a need to be able to communicate securely with Edward Snowden.”
From the start, as Ben aided Snowden with legal advice, he learned from him as well.
“[I was…] dealing with someone who is a world-class security technologist and also an excellent and very patient teacher,” he says. “I was entering a mode of communication where he felt extremely at home and I did not. This was going to be the only means of communication for an unknown length of time and we needed to exchange critical information, get to know each other and build trust, all while I am hunting and pecking on this tiny burner keyboard. And I have learned over the months and years how profound and intimate a chat conversation can be.”
Somehow it worked, and worked so well in fact, that meeting Snowden in person was a different experience for Wizner that he had expected.
“That was the surprising thing,” he says. “Even though we had gotten to know each other so well over so many hours of online conversation, I still had the expectation that our real relationship would begin when we met face to face. And yet it turned out to be a continuation rather than a new chapter.”
Wizner thinks often about the role that secure technology continues to play in both providing the foundation for their work together, and more broadly, in Ed’s continued participation in the larger dialogue around encryption.
“On one level, secure technology like Tor and Tails, has allowed Ed to defeat exile in a really profound way. Physical isolation has been imposed, but Ed is able to continue communicating to larger audiences from wherever he is. All of the legal and strategic advice,” he adds, “that goes into making these opportunities available and accessible for him would not be possible without using secure communications tools like Tor.”
I ask that the Canadian government drop any criminal charges against Edward Snowden, protect him from extradition or rendition by third parties, and offer him asylum, in recognition of his status as whistle-blower and international human rights defender.