In the 21st century surveillance state, we are all terrorists

Intimidating reporters, destroying their computers, detaining them under false pretenses -- it's all in a day's work for today's modern spy agency.

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I know some people worry about the safety of Julian Assange. (Others fantasize about him being killed in a drone strike.) Not me. Assange is not nearly as important as he likes to think he is. Assange is like a guy who goes to bed in a dark room, wakes up with the lights blazing, and thinks he invented electricity in his sleep.

No, I’m worried about the safety of Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras. I’m worried about the safety of the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman; and the New York Times’ Eric Lichtblau, James Risen, and Charlie Savage; and Reuters’ John Shiffman and Kristina Cooke; and all the others who’ve done such an amazing job unraveling the Gordian knots of our industrial surveillance complex, post-Snowden. I worry about their sources, too – real people with serious jobs who are taking an enormous risk in talking to them.

I worry that we will wake up to headlines that Greenwald has died in a car accident. Or from a drug overdose. Or that he got caught by a stray bullet in a convenience store robbery. Or maybe they’ll take a page out of Vladimir Putin’s book and just assassinate him in broad daylight. And all we’ll have left are a series of Internet conspiracy theories.

Because if this latest round of intimidation fails to work – and both the Guardian and Greenwald have vowed that it won’t – that’s the next logical step.

I’m not worried because I share a profession with these guys. I’m worried because when government fails to do its job or tries to assume too much control, reporters like these are the only way we’ll ever know about it. Despite its many deep flaws, the media is still our last best line of defense.

Datapocalypse

Still I think this strategy will backfire horribly on the spooks. Because here’s what is most likely to happen.

So far, I think, the Guardian and others have exercised reasonable restraint in what they have reported. They are at least attempting to understand the data before presenting it, and to maintain a balance between the public’s right to know and putting lives or even countries in danger. Reasonable people can disagree about how good a job they’re doing at that, but it’s clear they’re trying to achieve a level of responsible disclosure (unlike, say, Julian Assange did when he released 250,000 unredacted state department cables from Bradley Manning).

If you detain reporters at the airport and confiscate their thumb drives or force them to destroy computers, they will stop trying to parse the data and redact the most sensitive bits. The only safe way to handle this information in the future would be to distribute it as widely and quickly as possible.

In other words, a total Internet data free for all, open to anyone and everyone – including foreign spies and actual terrorists. Is that the world we want to live in? I don’t think so. But it’s far preferable to one in which no one dares speak at all, lest they become one more “mistake.”

Got a question about social media or privacy? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Follow him on Twitter: @tynanwrites. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

Now read this: 

What’s wrong with the NSA’s womb-to-tomb 24/7 surveillance

The NSA never metadata it didn’t like

Has Tor been bugged by the NSA?

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