August 11, 2014 – During a talk at the 20th anniversary of the Hackers on Planet Earth conference, Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg joined NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden to discuss how technology can empower dissent and protect individual privacy. Ellsberg challenged more whistleblowers to step forward, while Snowden called for hackers, technologists, and coders to develop open source security tools to assist whistleblowers and dissidents.
Although technology has helped individuals blow the whistle in modern times, it has also empowered dissidents throughout history.
Snowden cited the Pentagon papers, and how technology allowed for Daniel Ellsberg to get important information about the Vietnam War out to the public. “A copy machine might not seem like a killer app, but that enabled Daniel Ellsberg to get this back to the public,” he stated.
The United States has a long history of whistleblowing, political dissent, civil rights activism, and truth-telling. This history includes whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Mark Klein, Thomas Drake, Russ Tice, William Binney, J. Kirke Wiebe, Edward Loomis, Jesselyn Radack, Karen Kwiatkowski, Perry Fellwock, and Daniel Ellsberg—to name a few.
Other notable examples of dissent and activism come from figures like Rosa Parks, Lenny Bruce, Emma Goldman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and John Adams.
Technology—whether it be the printing press, a copy machine, or the latest smartphone—empowers dissent, opens discussion, and dampens censorship. It allows the individual to challenge the status quo, while enabling communities to build resourceful networks and freely exchange information and services.
Governments have used state secrecy and national security throughout history to engage in activities that the public might not otherwise condone. They have also enacted legislation to punish political dissent and truth-telling, instead of protecting whistleblowers and press freedoms. Legislation like the Espionage Act and Sedition Act were used to punish Americans who spoke out against certain government actions. Both socialists and anarchists were punished for their antiwar sentiments and for encouraging individuals to avoid the draft of the First World War.
According to the New York Times, Emma Goldman was arrested and deported under the Espionage Act for her part in interfering “with the nation’s war program.” The New York Times also reported that socialist leaders, like Eugene V. Debs, were charged under the Espionage act for obstructing the draft.
The Espionage Act was abused against Daniel Ellsberg in the 1970s and continues to be abused today. The Obama administration, according to CNN, has targeted more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all other presidents put together. Since 2008, the anti-freedom legislation has targeted Thomas Drake, Shamai Leibowitz, Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, Chelsea Manning, Jeffrey Sterling, John Kiriakou, James Hitselberger, and Edward Snowden.
Dissenters, whether they be John Adams, Daniel Ellsberg, or Thomas Drake, have played an important role in strengthening freedom. Whistleblowers, by their very nature, cast a powerful light upon a darkness of deception and secrecy. Like so many times throughout history, it is easy for the status quo to place blame on the individuals who are informing the public about their abusive actions.
What is notable is that most whistleblowers have used technology to their advantage to spread the truth. What is honorable is that all whistleblowers have risked sacrificing their inalienable rights through a heroic act of conscience.
In order to facilitate truth-telling and better protect whistleblowers, it is important for hackers, technologists, coders, and others to work on improving anonymity, privacy, and security. By developing free and open software that is both secure and usable, whistleblowers and journalists can communicate at a reduced risk of immediate repercussions. Anonymity networks can empower dissenting opinion, while privacy tools can protect sensitive information.
It is also important that individuals support truth-telling and condemn attempts by government to hamper it. While charges of espionage against Daniel Ellsberg and Thomas Drake were eventually dropped, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden are still being charged for their actions.
We need hackers and technologists to develop open source tools that are secure and accessible. We also need individuals to advocate for better protections of our civil liberties. This begins by petitioning the government to provide clemency for whistleblowers, repealing legislation that is dangerous to liberty, and returning to the principles that are enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and our Declaration of Independence.