Greenwald's keynote at 30c3: priorities for privacy activists

I recently watched Glenn Greenwald’s keynote from this year’s Chaos Computer Club conference. The whole speech is a darkly striking and inspiring look at the government’s role in compromising privacy, interplay with media outlets, and the heroes who are making incredibly stressful trades to illuminate what’s going on. If you are even remotely intrigued by the Snowden situation or privacy in general, it’s worth a watch.

One theme Greenwald discussed resonated with me particularly strongly. He says something that points to one fundamental distinction between governments and corporations that I think is commonly overlooked. Greenwald spends a few minutes (starting at around 24:00 in the link above) detailing the sacrifices that certain whistleblowers have made:

What [Laura Poitras] said to me is, “You know, it’s amazing if you think about it.” She went through the list of people who have devoted themselves to transparency and the price that they have paid. She said Edward Snowden is stuck in Russia facing thirty years in prison, Chelsea Manning is in prison, Aaron Swartz committed suicide. People like Jeremy Hammond and Barrett Brown are the subjects of grotesquely overzealous prosecutions by virtue of the acts of transparency they’ve engaged in. Even people like Jim Risen, who is with an organization like the New York Times, faces the possibility of prison for stories that he’s published.

Laura and I have been advised by countless lawyers that it is not safe for us to even travel to our own country, and she said, “It’s really a sign of how sick our political future has become, that the price for bringing transparency to the government, and for doing the job of the media, and the Congress, that they’re not doing, is this extreme form of punishment.”

Snowden in exile, Manning in prison, Swartz dead. All very real physical consequences that resulted from the non-violent process of trying to shed light on actions taken with public money.

Compare these cases to the instance of a security researcher hacking Facebook to post on Zuckerberg’s wall after being ignored by Facebook’s support. This action was among the most embarrassing public demonstrations of that vulnerability that he could have chosen; you can bet it left Facebook’s security team blushing. What was the consequence to the researcher?

Was he threatened with jail time, legal battles, or exile? Did anyone knock on his door with a rifle? Was he hunted down, forced to flee his home and family? Will he have to look over his shoulder for the rest of his life in fear of being captured or killed?

No. He was denied the bug bounty that Facebook typically awards individuals who report vulnerabilities.

What might the cost have been if he’d hacked NSA’s system instead of Facebook’s?

What is the defining characteristic of government?

Most people don’t seem to understand that the single characteristic that differentiates governments from any other sort of entity is that governments function as a monopoly on force. The government is the only one that is legally sanctioned to introduce a gun into the equation. This enables governments to collect taxes, impose regulations and laws, hold secret courts, and imprison whistleblowers indefinitely.

To some degree, that’s the whole point: we want the government to physically prevent or discourage things like violent crimes from happening. The problem comes when this unique power allows the government to expand its province into criminalizing non-violent drug usage, listening to our phone calls, and clandestinely tweaking the backbone of the internet.

Facebook and Google have never leveled anyone’s door with assault rifles in tow because someone revealed inconvenient details about criminal actions they may have committed, nor have they the legal leeway to do so.

They may collect and sell your data (with your voluntary consent), but they’ll never point a gun at you. The primary risk of their data collection resulting in physical harm to you is if a governmental agency comes calling to extort that data under legal threat, and then incriminates you for whatever flavor-of-the-week crime.

You can stop using Google. You can’t opt into or out of government surveillance.

Priorities for privacy activists

We have a significant problem with the way our government currently operates. This malfunction dwarfs any threats that private organizations impose right now. While those private organizations may grow to be more problematic in time, today’s Goliath is the runaway government that is imprisoning non-violent citizens to cover its own crimes.