On July 20, 2013, two technicians from the Government Communications Headquarters, the noted British spy agency, arrived at the London headquarters of the Guardian newspaper with a simple demand: Destroy the computers storing documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, or face punitive legal action on behalf of the British government. Drills and angle grinders in hand, the Guardian editors had no choice but to demolish the desktop and laptop computers themselves, while under the watchful gaze of the GCHQ agents.
Nearly two years later, the mangled remains of the Guardian's computers are to be part of a new exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London entitled “All of This Belongs to You,” a series of installations and events designed to examine questions of civic identity, technology, security and privacy and exploring “the role of public institutions in contemporary life.”
“It will be a pivotal part of a display, called 'Ways to Be Secret,' of hi-tech devices that raise questions about our privacy,” the Guardian reports. “It will include a selfie stick, a USB condom, a Fitbit Surge and a Cyborg Unplug, described as an 'anti-wireless surveillance system for the home and workplace.'”
The laptop incident is a strange twist in the Snowden saga. Civil liberties advocates decried the destruction of the computers as part of the British government’s ongoing efforts to intimidate journalists into not publishing potentially damaging revelations from the Snowden cache. But more than being an act of punitive cruelty, the decision to destroy the hardware—used by journalists to store and access the top-secret Snowden documents—is indicative of the British government’s narrow understanding of the basic principles of life in the modern era; namely, that a specific physical computer doesn’t really matter in the age of digital tools like DropBox and Tor. With copies of the leaked documents stored on computers overseas, then-Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger described their destruction as “a peculiarly pointless piece of symbolism.” It’s the law enforcement version of the infamous Zoolander vignette:
But in the two years since GCHQ agents arrived at the Guardian’s London offices, the destroyed hardware has taken on a new kind of dual symbolism: an emblem of states’ intent to colonize human activity in the digital commons just as they do in the “real” world, and a reminder of their sheer ineffectiveness at doing so. The destruction of the Guardian computers seems both incredibly stupid and remarkably alarming, a sign that the state’s implicit desire to circumscribe every aspect of daily life is only trumped by its monstrous misunderstanding of life in the digital age.
The decision to destroy the hardware is indicative of the British government’s narrow understanding of the basic principles of life in the modern era; namely, that a specific physical computer doesn’t really matter in the age of digital tools like DropBox and Tor.
Why has this sort of infantile, knee-jerk thinking become a trend among those responsible for interpreting and enforcing the law? The problem is that governments still have no idea how to think about the Internet. Arguably, that’s because state officials continually try to conceive of the Internet in “real world” terms, to apply two-dimensional thinking to a three-dimensional forum. This isn’t to say that the Internet isn’t “real”—in fact, the Internet, as a social extension of ourselves and our desires, often serves as a mirror for the physical world, a more honest portrait of human nature than the mediated selves we present at the office or at home.
The issue is that democratic states conceive of control in terms of tangible objects, whether it's control of territory and property under a legal and juridical regime (“power” in terms of the classic, Weberian definition of a state as an organization with a monopoly on coercive force in a given territory) or the control of bodies through systems of social conditioning and the regulation of populations (power conceived in terms of Foucault’s “biopower”). But what happens when you have an object without boundaries to patrol and a body to remand? The question becomes a way of interpreting and assessing information—a campaign that teeters on the brink of controlling ideas given how subjective the interpretation that, say, possessing a copy of al-Qaeda’s magazine is the mark of a terrorist.
The past few years have been filled with instances of governments seeking to shape digital life through overreach, particularly in the United States. The U.S. Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the federal anti-hacking law which makes it illegal to access a computer “without authorization,” has been marred with excessive penalties and disproportionately aggressive enforcement, the type of which drove renowned programmer Aaron Swartz to suicide and threatened a former Reuters employee with up to 10 years in prison over, essentially, mere seconds of digital vandalism.
In the wake of the cyberattacks on Sony, the White House proposed broad laws that would make sharing a link or an article that includes illegally obtained information—like this one—a federal crime, effectively criminalizing sharing on Facebook. Consider the American approach to Internet law the equivalent of “broken windows.” By enforcing Draconian punishments on small offenses, like pirating Sufjan Stevens’ new album or sharing a password, authorities hope to stave off the bigger fish who could deal serious damage.
The U.S. isn’t just attempting to protect its own interests under the veil of national security; it’s looking to circumscribe every aspect of online activity, from speech to fantasy. In December, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that could end up determining whether online death threats—the bread and butter of Internet discourse, from the New York Times comment section to Xbox Live—are protected as free speech, a ruling that could have tremendous consequences on the way we interact with each other on the Internet. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals' decision in United States v. Gilberto Valle, the case of the so-called “cannibal cop,” could potentially put Valle’s online fantasies about murdering and eating women in the category of criminal conspiracy, a move the Electronic Frontier Foundation decried as one step away from labeling Valle a perpetrator of “thoughtcrime.”
The United Kingdom has a similar problem. As the Atlantic’s Olga Khazan noted at the time, Britain’s Terrorism Act 2000, which “prohibits the possession of material that could be associated with terrorism or national-security breaches,” places disproportionate penalties on relatively harmless crimes with tenuous connections to the usual national security exception.
British civil liberties groups have criticized the law’s breadth in justifying invasions of privacy, arguing that "the definition includes many acts or types of behavior that, while unlawful, simply do not reach the level at which the extraordinary intrusive measures provided under anti-terrorism legislation can justifiably be used.” Khazan provides great examples of the Act’s broad definition of “terrorism or national-security breaches” in action: “Simply possessing a copy of Inspire, the Al-Qaeda magazine, for example, can result in up to 10 years in prison.... [In 2012], that very statute was used to sentence a man to 14 months of jail,” for putting up “gay-free zone” posters in cities across the U.K.
Voters are catching on to government officials’ Zoolander complex. In the immediate aftermath of the Snowden leaks, American attitudes toward government surveillance and the invasion of privacy remained relatively stable. But after two years of embarrassing revelations about the effectiveness of the NSA—collecting data on porn habits in order to discredit alleged radicals, spying on lovers, and generally functioning like a virtual frat house with access to everyone’s personal data—Americans are less trusting of an agency so cavalier with its constitutional rights. According to the Pew Research Center, 34 percent of Americans aware of the NSA surveillance programs have taken steps to hide their information from government intrusion; 25 percent say they changed their online behavior “a great deal” or “somewhat.”
The Guardian was wrong to argue that smashing those computers in the basement was an empty symbol. Those smashed hard drives have become examples of how inconsistent and uneven law enforcement treats crimes on the Internet.
The solution is not an Internet without law enforcement, although many civil libertarians and digital rights advocates would argue the opposite. The Internet has become so deeply entrenched in every aspect of our daily social—and economic—activities, some sort of infrastructure should provide legal recourse to citizens: Combatting the online harassment and cyberstalking of women is an obvious example. But the Guardian's Rusbridger was wrong to argue that smashing those computers in the Guardian basement was an empty symbol. Those smashed hard drives have become examples of how inconsistent and uneven law enforcement treats crimes on the Internet.
Even in the case of Snowden, which ostensibly meets the U.S. government’s “national security” standard, the reactions of the NSA and GCHQ have been more akin to a bull in a China shop, rather than the calculated, purposeful dance we’d expect government agencies to participate in when they deliberate the seizure of property and the invasion of privacy. It’s this inconsistent approach to Americans’ lives online that will leave not just computers shattered, but the trust of the public as well.
Lead photo: (Photo: Ivakoleva/Shutterstock)