He Told You So: Julian Assange, the NSA, and Edward Snowden

In their book Cypherpunks, Julian Assange and three other Internet activists predicted much of what Edward Snowden revealed about the NSA.
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In their book Cypherpunks, Julian Assange and three other Internet activists predicted much of what Edward Snowden revealed about the NSA.


Unpleasant and even unreliable people can produce highly valuable insights; it's the job of interested observers to separate the wheat from the chaff. The irregular fortunes of Julian Assange, who is still holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London trying to avoid extradition to Sweden in connection with allegations of sexual misconduct, are instructive on this point. In Cypherpunks, a book he published last year with three other well-known hackers and activists, Assange drew attention to the dangers of mass government surveillance that have catapulted to the center of public attention after the recent revelations of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Assange's youthful hacker name was Mendax ("lying"), allegedly from Horace's phrase "splendide mendax," or "nobly lying." It's impossible to avoid the impression that Snowden chose his own alias, Verax ("truthful") in direct opposition to Assange. There are some strong parallels between the two men. Both are autodidacts, both lifelong computer geeks, and the parents of both were divorced. Both write in the impatient, cringe-makingly pompous style that seems often to afflict programmers and gamers. (Snowden appears to have posted fairly frequently on the forums of technology website Ars Technica over the last decade or so.)

It's unfortunately true that many of our most visible experts in this area have been tainted one way or another in the press.

It’s been very striking to see the attacks from all quarters against Snowden's autodidacticism in the press so far. Many of the indignant anti-Snowdenites seem very concerned that he has only a GED and never finished college. That New York Times columnist David Brooks should imagine that Snowden somehow owed the establishment unquestioning obedience—that is to say: his silence in the face of illegal activity—because it let him into the country club, might be the most insulting thing about this whole sorry episode so far. Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) said: "I am just stunned that an individual who did not even graduate with a high school diploma, who did not successfully complete his military service [because he broke both legs in a training exercise, apparently] ... had access to some of the most highly classified information in our government." Perhaps we should be equally stunned that St. Lawrence University, the 91st-best college in the nation, according to Forbes, should have managed to produce a Senator Collins.

Such condescension, when one had imagined that can-do personal initiative was the very backbone of American exceptionalism! Especially for conservatives like Brooks, surely, personal drive, independence, and ambition were to be rewarded by the rugged champions of American enterprise! The obvious disconnect in this reasoning being: If Snowden wasn't a highly talented computer expert, and the NSA's contractors saw fit to hire him anyway, exactly what does that say about the Greatest Military In The World in the Greatest Nation On Earth? Snowden Saw Something, and then he Said Something, after all. Perhaps it depends what you see.

WHILE GOVERNMENTS HAVE DONE their best to smear Assange, they need scarcely have bothered: a number of his own associates deserted his organization, WikiLeaks, in 2010, and have spoken out forcefully against his grandiosity and megalomania. Few would dispute that he is a difficult and unpleasant character. His extravagant self-importance and intellectual carelessness come across loud and clear in the introductory chapter of Cypherpunks: "Once upon a time in a place that was neither here nor there, we, the constructors and citizens of the young internet discussed the future of our new world."

The bulk of Cypherpunks is the transcription of a freewheeling, imperfectly-edited conversation between Assange and Jérémie Zimmerman, who is co-founder of La Quadrature du Net, a French Internet freedom advocacy group; Tor developer and activist Jacob Applebaum; and Chaos Computer Club member Andy Müller-Maguhn. Through their political activities and their involvement with WikiLeaks, all four contributors have experienced an unusual degree of government intrusion in their personal lives. These men have all been in a position to monitor the encroaching surveillance state for years on end.

"So now it's a fact that technology enables total surveillance of every communication," Zimmerman observes. The group reckons "total surveillance" of all communications to be so obvious, so far beyond doubt, that it isn't challenged for a moment in their discussion; they are more interested in next steps. Assange:

Ten years ago this was seen to be a fantasy, something only paranoid people believed in, but the costs of mass interception have now decreased to the point where even a country like Libya with relatively few resources was doing it with French technology. In fact most countries are already there in terms of the actual interception. It's the efficiency of understanding and responding to what's being intercepted and stored that's going to be the next big leap.

There are intimations here of the further revelations promised by Glenn Greenwald, the principal reporter covering the Snowden material, as well as what we heard from Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-CA) regarding the NSA's surveillance of American citizens: "I don't know if there are other leaks, if there's more information somewhere, if somebody else is going to step up, but I will tell you that I believe it's the tip of the iceberg. ... I think it's just broader than most people even realize, and I think that's, in one way, what astounded most of us, too."

THERE'S A REAL DANGER that the dodgy personal reputation of theorists like Assange will blind us to the possibilities for reform. It's unfortunately true that many of our most visible experts in this area have been tainted one way or another in the press. In particular, the "outlaw" status of "hackers" like Assange should be set aside when they offer remedies for the overreach of government.

For example: cryptography, according to Assange, can provide the means by which the public can protect itself against governmental intrusion:

[Y]ou can build atomic bombs, [but] there are math problems that you can create that even the strongest state cannot break. ... So there is a property of the universe that is on the side of privacy, because some encryption algorithms are impossible for any government to break, ever. There are others that we know are extremely hard for even the NSA to break. We know that because they recommend those algorithms be used by US military contractors for the protection of top secret US military communications, and if there was some kind of back-door [sic] in them soon enough the Russians or the Chinese would find it, with severe consequences for whoever made the decision to recommend an insecure cipher.

It makes no difference whether or not Assange is a stone cold liar in his personal life when we consider the protection that cryptography might offer a public that is being spied on illegally by its own government. If that is good advice, as it appears to be, we should surely act on it.

Zimmerman offered hope from a different angle: "I'm convinced that there is a market in privacy that has been mostly left unexplored, so maybe there will be an economic drive for companies to develop tools that will give users the individual ability to control their data and communication." It seems clear, too, that a public educated to the dangers of total surveillance will reward investment in the next iteration of privacy protections. In part, this is a matter of patient and careful explanation on the part of experts and the press. Whatever else we may hope for from the Snowden leaks, they have already opened a window here.

Elsewhere in the book, and speaking on another point, Applebaum outlined the questions the public might be asking of the companies implicated in the Snowden materials.

If you build a system that logs everything about a person and you know that you live in a country with laws that will force the government to give that up, then maybe you shouldn't build that kind of a system. ... [T]hese companies have some serious ethical liability that stems from the fact that they're building these systems and they've made the economic choice to basically sell their users out. ... And this isn't about technology at all, it's about economics. They have decided that it is more important to collaborate with the state and to sell out their users and to violate their privacy and to be a part of the system of control—to be paid back for being a part of the surveillance culture.

Public statements from Google, Facebook, and the other companies named in the Prism leaks have so far entirely failed to address these points, despite their surface pro-citizen's-rights spin. But new companies may yet emerge, offering social networks and search engines that refuse to "sell their users out." By making use of cryptographic techniques and built-in privacy protections, future Internet innovators may (and will, with any luck) supplant these behemoths to restore the security and safeguard the future of a free and open Internet.

As Snowden's character and motivations continue to be traduced by the establishment he sought to criticize, as he is by turns lionized and vilified, keep your eyes on the message. Not the messenger.