At capacity and filling several overflow conference rooms, the tenth Hackers on Planet Earth conference in New York City greeted former NSA contractor Edward Snowden with an overwhelming show of support Saturday afternoon, as he was introduced by conference organizer and publisher of 2600, Emmanuel Goldstein.
Downstairs, another hundred or more attendees chose to forego the crowded conference halls and watch via live video stream. Scattered about the Pennsylvania Hotel in chairs and on floors, some huddled together sharing laptop screens while others sat alone clutching tablets or smartphones. They all watched intently. Extended to allow additional discussion, the session ran 90 minutes, bringing the noise of a busy convention floor filled with vendor booths to near silence for the duration.
During his third appearance at a major event via live Internet feed since being granted political asylum in Russia one year ago, Snowden was visibly moved by the crowd’s reaction, his smile turning to an embarrassed laugh before asking, “Can you hear me now?”
Then, joking: “That last part was actually for the FBI, it wasn’t for you guys. I’m hoping we can help them pad out the indictment today.”
Moderator Trevor Timm, founder of Freedom of the Press Foundation, led a lightly guided session of questions for both Snowden and Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, two of America’s most controversial—and arguably most impactful—dissidents, separated by two generations. Timm began by asking Ellsberg how he felt when he first heard news about Snowden’s leak of classified NSA documents.
“I can tell you exactly what I felt,” he said. “Hope, actually, which had not been in great supply for me recently.”
As Ellsberg turned the conversation to Snowden, the tone that would carry much of the session set in. “Technology empowers dissent,” Snowden began, drawing a connection between his own leaks and those of Ellsberg that landed with the assembled crowd of self-identified hackers. “A copy machine may not seem like a killer app to people, but it enabled you.” Then, pivoting to his point: “What that tells me, and what I think is important for our society, is to recognize that technology empowers one man, or one woman—voices, democracy.”
When Ellsberg was asked about comparisons—most recently in statements by Secretary of State John Kerry—between himself and Snowden, which characterize the Pentagon Papers as an acceptable leak while holding Snowden’s actions to a different standard, Ellsberg brought a chuckle from the room.
“Well, this bullshit, in a way, started with Barack Obama,” he said, explaining that when asked to compare his own situation to that of Chelsea Manning, the President defended the prosecution of Manning by stating, “Ellsberg’s information was classified in a different manner.” On deeper inspection however, the facts slant in favor of Manning. “That’s true, in a way […] Everything Manning put out was secret or less, and everything I put out was top secret. That was the difference.”
The room laughing, Ellsberg continued, “Thanks to Manning and now to you [Snowden], I’m getting more favorable publicity… in 40 years… suddenly people who were all for putting me in prison for life before realize that, apparently, now I’m the good whistleblower.”
Although some of Snowden’s answers drifted into technical topics while Ellsberg’s answers were often tethered to legal issues and philosophical screeds about the need for leaks and leakers, commonality between the two was the most striking feature. These are two men—removing altogether any individual opinions of their judgement—who each were deeply disturbed by the things of which they were aware in their respective times and courses of duty, and which, having sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States, acted as they believed they must in its defense.
Putting a fine point on the matter, Ellsberg was at his most animated while returning to the moderator’s original line of questioning. After first dismissing the notion that exposing the truth about a violation of the Constitution could ever be traitorous, adding that he was deeply offended by “the ignorance of the media and the Congresspeople,” Ellsberg turned the question of patriotism on its head. “Here is the standard I would like to see set,” Ellsberg explained. “Snowden is the one person in the fucking NSA who did what he absolutely should have done.” Catcalls and hoots from the crowd yielded to a smattering of applause, and he continued, “How many people should have done what you [Snowden] did?”
In May, Secretary Kerry, whose four decades in American politics began as a vocal critic of Vietnam, referred to Snowden as a “coward” and “traitor” while comparatively praising Ellsberg for “doing it right.” Taking to TV, Ellsberg lambasted Kerry. While watching his remarks at Hope X, and his impassioned delivery—never underestimate the power of an aging intellectual dropping an f-bomb, David Lynch-style—it was hard to walk away without the feeling that Ellsberg is personally insulted by any separation of his actions from those of Snowden, or Manning, or Bush-era NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake.
Previously having spoken of co-workers at the NSA just as disturbed by the constitutional breaches they observed, but unable to stomach the enormous personal risks he took, Snowden was careful in his response to Ellsberg’s condemnation of others who failed to act. First, defining himself as a political moderate, he spoke of the things he left behind: a family, a life. “I loved Hawaii,” he said, a little wistful, then coming to the defense of those he’d worked with at the NSA, he added, “You can’t judge people too harshly for human nature.” He called not for judgement, but for positive action. “I don’t want to judge people and say, ‘You didn’t do what you were supposed to do.’ From an engineering perspective, I want to say, ‘How can we fix it? How can we reduce the costs of action?'”
Unanimous among all I spoke with was their respect and admiration for both men, and for those who speak truth to power at risk of personal jeopardy. The crowd was, however, more divided on which of Snowden’s remarks most affected them.
Many I spoke with mentioned Snowden’s call to engineers, along with more technical discussions of the need to fix the vulnerabilities in the code of democracy, as a personal call to action. Still others, mindful of information security conferences and their well-earned reputation for attracting quiet but observant employees of the NSA and FBI, pointed to Snowden’s last remarks as the message to take home from the main event at HOPE’s 20th anniversary.
“There are people from the NSA in this room,” he said. “They go to different tracks to make sure that they see all the talks.” Speaking directly to them, he added, “It’s OK if you hate me. We have to decide how we feel. We have to stop thinking that what is on the news is the gospel truth. […] I could be totally full of shit; you have to figure out what you believe in, and stand for it.
“Think about the world we want to live in, and then be a part of building it. If I could ask one thing of you, that would be it.”
Standing in ovation, the crowd cheered and whistled for the disembodied and smiling head of Edward Snowden, projected from half a world away like a Max Headroom-esque figure in a dystopian science fiction story come to life. Hacker culture has long been influenced by the novels of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, the graphic novels of Warren Ellis, and before them, George Orwell’s classic 1984. To a crowd that grew up immersed in such deep, dark, and incredibly detailed fiction, the view of the stage from the conference room floor stirs a medly of tropes from the stories they’ve always loved.
A rogue hero, a mentor, a faceless goliath of an enemy. A global information network full of potential for mankind while also ripe with peril, and a small army of motivated hackers emboldened to take back the freedoms they hold so dear.
Almost certainly, a moment which will be remembered in history. Snowden’s remarks to those in attendance, and those watching around the world, asked them to help write the next chapter.
It’s a plot that looks increasingly like a terror-laced sprint through the mind of any among a number of authors beloved by hackers young and old. Most of those stories don’t end with immaculate victory for the hero. For the sake of ourselves, let’s hope this developing series rallies for an ending less like those novels filled with brutal inhumanity and unresolved disillusionment, and more in the spirit of a Hollywood blockbuster.
Illustration by Max Fleishman