The Right to Know

One of the most important tenets in the hacker community is the sharing of information.  We believe we have the right to see how things work, to learn what technologies are in place in our world, to ultimately understand the way it all functions together.  Sometimes this knowledge is inconvenient to the powers that be.  In fact, usually it is.  Those in control generally preserve their power by keeping certain things to themselves.  Secrets are a huge part of their world.

We've seen so many instances of this battle taking place in the nearly three decades that we've been around.  Hackers around the world have revealed inconvenient truths and been penalized heavily for them.  Often, these revelations are inspired by a simple and sometimes naive belief that information should be free by default.  Other times, significant thought goes into it and the information revealed carries far more weight, as consideration is given to concepts of justice and full disclosure.  Each of these reasons for sharing such information gives a black eye to the status quo, but the second one can be viewed as truly dangerous, since the revealing parties have actual knowledge of their subject matter ­and its most relevant and interesting aspects.

What we've witnessed this summer is nothing short of unprecedented.  The intrusive actions of the National Security Agency can't really be seen as surprising to anyone possessing even a passing familiarity with the American surveillance program.  But having it laid out in black and white for all the world to see is a monumental embarrassment to the NSA and those who support its policies.  Edward Snowden, the man who revealed this information, is someone who has exhibited the convictions we celebrate in our community, but at a great personal cost.  And, whether you believe that sharing these facts is a good or bad thing, it would be very hard to say that Snowden wasn't following what he believed to be a high moral compass.  While some may say he betrayed his position as an NSA contractor, he most definitely lived up to his job as a concerned citizen.  This kind of individual sacrifice is rare and commendable.  It's what so many of us strive for, yet so few find ourselves in a position to actually contribute something meaningful.  And even fewer still in that position are able to actually come through and stare down some of the greatest powers ever to exist.  How can such spirit not be admired?

We saw a similar spirit in the case of Bradley Manning, recently sentenced to 35 years in prison for revealing information from his vantage point in the U.S. military.  We learned of completely unjustified civilian deaths at the hands of our own soldiers, information that was being suppressed and kept out of the public eye.  We heard what governments were really saying about each other and saw ample evidence of lies and hypocrisy from all corners of the Earth.  There were no governments anywhere that didn't feel nervous about what the public might find out about them.  And this is a good thing.  We all have the right to know what is really going on.  Yes, it can be said that some things need to be kept out of the public eye for the sake of security and diplomacy.  But every secret is only a secret for so long and, if that's all that's holding up a regime or policy, the foundation will collapse at some point.  It's even been said that Manning's revelations helped lead to the (((Arab Spring))).  If true, this would almost universally be seen as a good thing.  Yet, a severe punishment was inflicted for sharing the information which so many feel has benefited the world and the ideals of freedom, far more than any harm and inconvenience that may have been caused.  That shows us what the priorities of those in power truly are.  Keeping the secrets and knowing one's place are way more important to them than openness and idealistic acts which could pave the way for a better world.

We've seen the evidence for this better world already.  People are talking about these issues whereas before they would have had no knowledge at all to consider.  We're thinking about our privacy a lot more now and are a bit more hesitant to believe what we're told by those in power.  We've even seen changes in policy as a direct result of the NSA revelations, which never would have occurred otherwise.  Education comes from knowledge and we can't honestly be free without knowing the truth.

What we need are many more Mannings and Snowdens who occupy a place in unique corners of society who can educate us on what's actually happening. And yes, we do have the right to know these things.  A society whose government spies on its citizens and expects no objections is a society that will cause immense harm and/or self-destruct.  When policies are based on lies, as we have seen in everything from legislation to wars, they spread a sickness that can be so much more destructive than any revealed truth.

We have learned a great deal in watching the reactions of our various leaders.  We see how the surveillance of so many aspects of our lives is supported by politicians of both parties and how deep the cover-up goes.  We also see how they have no problem changing the rules behind our backs to make these inexcusable actions "legal."  Shining the light on their subterfuge is about the most patriotic act we can think of.

But this goes way beyond government.  We've also seen how so many technology giants are working hand in hand to destroy any privacy we have left.  The biggest have already been implicated in the NSA's PRISM program, the true extent of which has yet to be revealed.  Other companies and individuals with a semblance of integrity have a unique opportunity to come forward and not play this game.  Such moves, obviously, don't come without risk, something the big moneymakers aren't likely to embrace.

This episode has also taught us a great deal about the integrity - and lack thereof - in the journalistic world, a forum where this sort of thing shouldn't even be a question.  When information of this sort is leaked, it needs to be reported on accurately and fairly.  The world of journalism has obviously undergone tremendous changes in the past few years, but the overall values remain the same.  While people like Julian Assange of WikiLeaks and Glen Greenwald of The Guardian have more of a say in how their stories are reported than the hierarchical reporters of the past, what they are revealing is what is the story, not their personalities or the way they operate.  So much time has been wasted on character assassination that the story itself is in danger of being lost completely.  This distraction makes it easier to threaten and harass those who put themselves on the front line by daring to touch this material in the first place.  We've seen a few despicable instances of this already and, no doubt, more are in the planning stages.  Journalists need to be in the foreground of those who object to this sort of thing, yet too many are instead playing right into the hands of the authorities, no doubt out of fear for themselves or for losing their prized connections.  Those are the ones who are in the wrong profession.

The hacker spirit must thrive in all of these environments.  When policies or incidents that are unjust occur, they need to be revealed.  Too many times, the excuses of just following orders or company policy or not making waves have been used.  Those days have to end.  The truth, though sometimes messy, will come out at some point and it's far better for us to deal with it together than to live our lives in ignorance and realize far too late what we were complicit in.

Of course, this flies in the face of every powerful entity on the planet and we can expect severe reactions from those who realize their world of secrets is in danger.  That's why courageous people like those named here are so valuable and must never be left unprotected.  Once it becomes clear that information will indeed be free by default, meaningful dialogue and actual change will become possible.  That simply cannot happen in the current covert atmosphere.

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