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Why Are Techies Trying to Tar Snowden and the Reporters Who Went After the Story?

Efforts to take down Greenwald and Snowden are ultimately destructive of the interests of American technology companies and American security.

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Some Silicon Valley figures, along with some Democratic party-aligned media outlets, have tried assailing Glenn Greenwald, and indirectly, Edward Snowden, by trying to discredit certain aspects of the Guardian account of NSA surveillance in the US. Greenwald, who has an appetite for trench warfare, deigned to rebut their efforts as of last Friday. But the tech pedants’ efforts to take down Greenwald and Snowden aren’t simply petty and disingenuous, they are ultimately destructive of the interests of American technology companies and American security.

Some of the tactics used have been a bizarre combination of focusing on minutiae and straw manning. For instance, one site, Little Green Footballs, claimed that though the Guardian had said Snowden had smuggled four “confidential” laptops out, he’d in fact used a thumb drive to carry documents out of Booz. Golly gee, that means you can’t trust ANY of the rest of the story!

However, the Guardian had simply said that Snowden had four laptops with him when he first met with their reporters. The piece was silent on how exactly he extracted the data. So, using Little Green Footballs’ own logic, you should not trust one iota anything Little Green Footballs has to say on this matter, either. We similarly have the range war over the “direct access to servers” language, when anyone who read the original Guardian story would recognize that the ‘direct access’ language tracked that of a PowerPoint slide on the PRISM program, a document whose authenticity has never been denied; the story wrote up the slides. Funny how people who would have laughed at Clinton’s famed “it depends what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” were eager to use the same stick to try to beat Greenwald.

Or as Lambert has said, “Shorter tech dudes on Greenwald: The NSA slides show the servers weren’t built my way, so the slides are wrong. Also, my boss would never lie to me.”*

This front of the PR war against Greenwald, the Guardian, and Snowden is using a tactic familiar to anyone who remembers the financial crisis: that the story is a technology story, ergo, only technologists are qualified to opine on it. But that rhetorical approach (“it’s all too complicated, you just need to believe what we tell you”) was seldom used by people who were acting in good faith to unravel what had happened. It was instead used mainly by incumbents and people who wanted to preserve their relationship with them to circle the wagons.

There was at least some underlying logic for this position during the market meltdown. It was, after all, a financial crisis. By contrast, the NSA scandal is not a technology story. It is at its heart a story about surveillance, the Constitution, and whether we really have any rule of law left in the US. Technology is only an enabler, folks, although, as we will discuss, this story does have important implications for major US technology players.

This clip from The Lives of Others (which is a wonderful and important movie) will hopefully serve as a reminder:

The modern society with the most intensive surveillance, East Germany, had the Trabant as its most noteworthy home grown product. Now the technology fans may argue that the selection above proves their point, that the Stasi used the best technology they had to bug the suspect’s apartment. But they forget that the Stasi depended first and foremost on spying, meaning the active cooperation of much of the population. And as this selection shows, the effectiveness of the installation of devices could have been sabotaged by the watchful neighbor had she not been cowed into silence.