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A new kind of leaker for an internet age

David Carr (via NYT/ AFR) | June 11, 2013
Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old man behind the recent revelations about the National Security Agency's pursuit of phone and computer data, upended that history. He is a new kind of leaker of the wired age.

It's important to note that Mr. Snowden did not just dump a bunch of unredacted documents on the Web and slink back to his job. He apparently thought a great deal about where the information belonged and contacted Barton Gellman, who had a long and respected career in national security reporting at The Washington Post. According to an article by Mr. Gellman in Monday's Post, Mr. Snowden asked for guarantees about what The Post would print, and when.

After The Post said it could not provide any guarantees, according to Mr. Gellman, Mr. Snowden turned to Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian, who has covered national security and secrecy issues in a chronic and ferocious manner. (Mr. Greenwald disputes that timeline, saying he has been in contact with Mr. Snowden since February).

In spite of the uproar around WikLeaks and a new age of electronic drop boxes, there has never been a shortage of whistles; what has been in short supply is people to blow them. In this instance, the Web is not just a repository of leaked material, but a means of changing the dynamics of the debate into a two-way affair in which the public has access to the leaker.

The administration, in both its public remarks and its investigations into leaks, has tried to portray those who leak as marginal people with nefarious motivations. By using the Web and speaking on his own behalf, Mr. Snowden is not allowing himself to be defined by the government.

As a whistle-blower who has come to his own defense, Mr. Snowden has engaged the public as a player in the debate. Social media, most notably Twitter, is alive with commentary about who he is and what he did. What is normally a vacuum; in which the government characterises the leaker and those who enabled him; is now a dialogue.

The debate over secrets has gone viral and as a result, is itself much less secret. In the past, few leakers would have been able to broadcast their messages to the world even before the government and the public had time to absorb the implications of what they did.

Mr. Snowden is not the first whistle-blower to draw attention to himself. Daniel Ellsberg, the central figure in the Pentagon Papers affair and one of the historical figures whom Mr. Snowden pointed to as precedents, never hid who he was. Mr. Ellsberg reasoned, correctly as it turned out, that he would be seen as someone who acted in the broader interest of the country even as he divulged its most precious secrets.

But Mr. Snowden's visibility in an Internet age is more immediate and more ubiquitous. He is now the face of the opposition to state-sponsored information gathering. Even though he is in Hong Kong, he is everywhere.


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