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Hacktivists: Heroes Or, Well, Hacks?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, the British government has recently agreed to pay reparations to more than 5,000 Kenyans who faced torture and other severe abuse during the rebellion against colonial rule in the 1950s. We'll find out what's behind this landmark settlement. But first we want to follow up on the conversation many Americans have been having about technology and privacy. The fallout continues from the decision by former government contractor Edward Snowden to leak information about a secret government data mining program to the Washington Post and The Guardian.

While Snowden's case seems particularly dramatic - he later emerged in a hotel room, and has since disappeared - he's only the latest in a series of so-called hacktivists, people who use their technical skills to expose activities of government or corporations with which they disagree. And he, like others, has a sparked a wide-ranging and intense debate about whether they are heroes or traitors or something somewhere in between. We wanted to talk more about this with two people who've been thinking about it.

We wanted to talk more about this with two people who've been thinking about it. Gabriella Coleman is an anthropologist who's immersed herself in the world of hackers and digital activism. She's the author of "Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking." She's currently working on a new book about the hacker group Anonymous. She's with us from Montreal, Canada. Gabriella, thanks so much for joining us.


MARTIN: Also with us, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who recently wrote about this issue as well. Richard Cohen, thank you so much for joining us.

RICHARD COHEN: Good to be here.

MARTIN: So Gabriella, let me start with you. First of all, can I just ask how you got interested in this area of so-called hacktivism?

COLEMAN: It was a while ago, while I was in graduate school doing a very traditional project. And I had learned about an alternative license - the copyleft - which was invented by free and open source software hackers to free software. And I was just floored by the fact that these technologists were not simply making technology, but reinventing the law.

MARTIN: I think it's fair to say that you're very sympathetic to this particular type of activism. I mean, you've called them the new guardians of our civil liberties. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

COLEMAN: Sure, absolutely. I mean, it's definitely the case when you're an anthropologist and you have to spend most of your time with the people you study - you probably shouldn't pick something that you absolutely hate, right? At the same time, you know, you are well-positioned to offer some critical insight, and yet I do find it particularly important and interesting that these computer hackers, which are so important for building technology for the economic sector, are also really making their political voices heard and entering into the political domain in so many diverse ways. I think this is one of the most important stories of our times, and will be increasingly important in the future as well.

MARTIN: OK, but to your own personal view though, is it fair to say that you think that these activities are positive? I mean, you feel that these activities are in defense of freedom overall, that that is the right thing to do? I mean, other people have called Edwards Snowden a hero. Do you think he's a hero?

COLEMAN: I think one of the most important elements about these hacker interventions are that they're catalyzing the debate and I absolutely, absolutely feel that the debate has to happen. That's the most important thing, and I can get a hundred percent behind that. And then both as an anthropologist and maybe as a citizen, I'm more interested in the question, why them? Why are these hackers the ones that are taking a stand as opposed to other groups?

MARTIN: Richard Cohen, you've written about this and you, like a number of other columnists, have taken a very different view. You said that, for example, just reading from your recent column in the Post, "Everything about Edward Snowden is ridiculously cinematic. He's not paranoiac, he's merely narcissistic. He jettisoned a girlfriend, a career, and undoubtedly his personal freedom to expose programs that were known to our elected officials and could have been deduced by anyone who's ever Googled anything. History will not record him as one of America's most consequential whistleblowers. History is more likely to forget him." Strong words. Tell us more about your point of view here.

COHEN: That pretty much sums it up. I - the thing that I find most striking about Snowden and what he did is that, in all of it, there's not a single incident of abuse. One of these programs was authorized by a vote in the Patriot Act. There were members of Congress who knew all about it. If you wanted to go and look at the particular phone calls or emails of a particular person, you had to go to court and get permission of a judge. It's no different than if the police want to put a wiretap on your phone now.

They have to go to the court and ask for permission to do it. So you had all these safeguards built in. There's no example that he came up with where it's abuse. So what did we gain from it? I don't know if we gained anything. Did we lose something? The government says we did. The program has been exposed and therefore, certain operation are - been damaged. I don't know that that's true. I don't know that that's false. But I have to accept what they say.

MARTIN: A number of other individuals, including House Speaker John Boehner, who's called him a traitor. Do you think he's a traitor?

COHEN: No, I mean, I don't think he purposefully set out to harm the United States of America. He hasn't sold it to a government. But I don't think he's a hero either. I think he's deluded. I think he may be a highly emotional person. I don't know. But if you compare him to Daniel Ellsberg, which a lot of people have, including Daniel Ellsberg, I would say with Daniel Ellsberg - he revealed the Pentagon papers - I learned a lot, namely that my government was consistently lying to me. I haven't found this out from Snowden.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about digital activists, so-called hacktivists, Edward Snowden in particular. We're talking about how their actions should be viewed. Are they ethical? Are they morally questionable? Our guests are Richard Cohen - he's a columnist for the Washington Post who recently wrote about this, and Gabriella Coleman - she's an author and an expert, an anthropologist who's immersed herself in the world of digital activism. Gabriella Coleman, didn't you say that a number of people who've written about this who are critical of Edward Snowden have called him a narcissist? I'm interested in that, why they've chosen that term. But one of the points that they've made consistently is that, unlike, say, the civil rights activists in past years, like Medgar Evers, did not have the means to participate in the activities of the government with which they disagreed. I mean, they were aggressively barred from voting. So, you know, civil rights activism was really their only choice. And a number of people have made the point that Edward Snowden had every, all these means available to him. He can vote, he can be active, he could contact his elected officials. What do you say to that?

COLEMAN: First of all, I think it takes remarkable courage to be critical from within an institution. But about the kind of available means for meaningful change, I believe that he had none. And the reason for this is, I'll take the example of Thomas Drake, who worked for the NSA and who absolutely took the available channels available to him, both internally to the NSA and going to Congress, and he got in a lot of trouble.

MARTIN: Remind us again of what he did.

COLEMAN: He also claims that Americans are being spied on and that there weren't safeguards within the NSA programs for American citizens and their data. And he went to people within the NSA, as well as lawmakers, as well as journalists, to talk about it so that journalists would write stories about this. Basically, he was charged under the Espionage Act and eventually the case fell because he never leaked any classified information. And people like Thomas Drake and other journalists have consistently tried to get answers from Congress. And it doesn't seem like there are legal channels available for people, both within and also outside the establishment, to make meaningful change. And this is one of the reasons why people turn to civil disobedience and direct action.

MARTIN: Richard Cohen, what about that? I mean, the argument is that it's, that there is no way out of that closed universe except to go public. And in fact, a number of people have pointed to the fact that there are members of Congress, Senators, who said that they also had reservations about this program but were constrained from discussing it because they had access to classified information. What do you say about that?

COHEN: The fact of the matter was that this was not a question of the bureaucracy imposing some sort of policy and nobody knowing about it. This was a matter of Congress passing a law which was known at the time. I always knew that this program existed because I know that Google has this information. If Google has it, I'm sure the government has it. You go on the Internet, you give up privacy to a certain extent. There is a difference between privacy and anonymity. The government may monitor my pattern of my emails or my telephone calls but if they want to find out what I'm saying and who I am, then that's a different matter. Then they have to go to the court and ask the court for permission to do it. Now you may think the court is lax, it's too permissive. There are problems with it, but I say, we have to stay diligent on this thing.

MARTIN: What should happen now, Richard? Should he go to jail?

COHEN: Look, I don't want to see him go to jail. I mean, I don't see him as a criminal. I think the government is going to try to put him in jail.

MARTIN: If what he did was wrong and it compromises the safety of his fellow countrymen, why shouldn't he go to jail?

COHEN: I know, but I don't think he set out to do anything. I mean, I don't really know the guy. And you know, the profile you get of him is that he is a little, you know, not a little, but plenty melodramatic, maybe, you know, was deluded into thinking he was doing something heroic and right. I don't think he was doing something heroic and right. But jail, I, you know, I'm glad I'm not a judge, 'cause I probably couldn't send anybody to jail.

MARTIN: OK, fair point. Gabriella, though, what about the point that if this is indeed an act of civil disobedience, that he should stand before a judge and jury of his peers and use that opportunity to express his moral opposition to the law. Because, I mean, the argument here is that, you know, at any given time, there are many decisions that the country has made through their elected representatives with which an individual citizen might disagree. But if everybody just feels that they cannot follow rules and agreements that they have themselves made voluntarily - I mean, he signed a confidentiality agreement - then we have chaos. What about that?

COLEMAN: It's absolutely the case that he broke the law, and there's two comments there. First of all, all sorts of laws have been passed that then we overturn and disagree with, both through legal channels, as well as through civil disobedience, right. I mean, slavery is just one of many, many examples. Just because it's legal doesn't mean it's right. And that's precisely why his action is so important, is that he opens that question. And precisely his action then foments a grassroots movement. And that's happening with groups such as Stop Watching Us, which then are using the legal channels to foment change. So in some ways, he opens the door for legal action. When you break the law, I do believe you should be accountable. He came forward and yet, I understand his reluctance. You know, he's not boarding a plane to the United States because he sees what's happening with Bradley Manning. He knows that he potentially faces a lifetime in jail. And while he would probably - and, you know, I'm speaking for him and that's, you know, total conjecture - he might be willing to do some time, but a lifetime, that's absolutely too harsh.

MARTIN: Gabriella Coleman is author of "Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking." We reached her in Montreal. Richard Cohen is a columnist for the Washington Post. We reached him in New York. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

COHEN: Thank you.

COLEMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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