Snowden NSA leak case shows problems with whiz kids hacktivists

World War II generations recall  Photo: Edward Snowden

WASHINGTON, June 13, 2013 — World War II generations recall the slogan, “Loose lips sink ships.” A cold war generation remembers “protecting America’s secrets” from Russia.

Does the Millennial generation understand that message? 

SEE RELATED: Edward Snowden and some other famous 20th century traitors

Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old whiz kid, admitts to leaking classified documents gathered from his work at the NSA to the press. The question of whether he is a hero or a traitor casts a bright light on the divide between an older WWII generation and a younger Internet generation.

Is smuggling information on a thumb drive the same as carrying information out in a folder, hidden beneath your shirt? Is copying a classified Word file any different than making clandestine photos of a paper document?

There are more questions than answers about who Edward Snowden is and how he became a household name. Snowden is not the first, nor will he be the last, American to “leak” classified information. CIA analyst and intelligence officer Aldrich Ames turned over a huge amount of material to the Soviets, and in the process compromised more CIA assets than anyone but FBI agent Robert Hanssen. Alger Hiss spied for the Soviets for years from the U.S. State Department.

Either for money, as in the case of Hanssen and Ames, or out of ideological conviction, as in the case of Hiss, these men gave away American secrets to America’s enemies. A Cold War generation remembers their names with contempt.

SEE RELATED: Edward Snowden: American hero or supervillain?

Not so the millennial generation with the names Aaron Swartz, Bradly Manning, and now Edward Snowden. To many of their generation, these men are cyber activists, whistle blowers, government watchdogs and heroes. An older generation that considers revealing classified information a serious crime is left scratching its head. Does a generation that has lived on the Internet take secrets less seriously? Is this generation so cynical of government that it considers releasing secrets just another form of public oversight, a civic duty? Does their lack of a state make terrorists less threatening than Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union?

Both Snowden and Manning worked in areas where they had access to information gathered on computer systems from surveillance systems whose capacity grew exponentially after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Swartz, though he didn’t take classified government material, was able to create programs to gather (steal) information from private systems, and also created Strongbox, a system permits people to send documents to reporters at The New Yorker anonymously.

Swartz seems not to have believed that he was doing anything wrong. Whether Snowden or Manning thought they were stealing documents, revealing sensitive secrets, or violating a public trust is an open question. Unlike Hanssen and Ames, they weren’t paid directly by enemies of the United States to turn over their stolen secrets clandestinely. They released the material with the intent that it be shared with the world. Whether they hoped to make money off their acts is not clear (it’s very clear that, were the authorities to permit it, they could make more than Ames or Hanssen ever dreamed of). 

Edward Snowden was born in June 21, 1983. His father was a Coast Guard officer in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, home of the Coast Guard Aviation Logistics Center, Aviation Technical Training Center and an Air and Small Boat station. By 1999, Snowden’s family had moved to Ellicott City, Maryland. After his parents divorced, his father moved to Allentown, Pennsylvania.

From all accounts, Edward Snowden was an academic underachiever. Despite being intelligent and maybe because of it, he dropped out of high school at 16 and took classes at Anne Arundel Community College as part of a program to gain a high school diploma. He did not complete that, either. He ultimately took and passed the GED test.

Snowden enlisted in the Army around the age of 21, serving for four months before discharge. Snowden reports he was discharged after he broke both of his legs during a training exercise. Although the military does not usually discharge someone for an injury, and even amputees serve, he would not be allowed to continue in the service if his injuries interfered with his ability to perform his duties.

Snowden’s first job was as a security officer with the National Security Agency, located near his mother’s Ellicott City home at a covert facility.

By 2007, he was working in Geneva, Switzerland for the CIA and was responsible for maintaining computer network security. By the time everyone knew his name, Snowden had floated from one top secret job to another, never lasting at any one for more than three years. He had been in his current job for less than three months when he decided to remove classified information from his place of work, release it to the press, and flee the country.

For a 24-year-old high school dropout to be hired to run Information Technology security at the CIA and to be a systems administrator making $122,000 a year at a time when the nation is dealing with some of its highest unemployment rates in the past decade is remarkable. But it seems that in the age of such complex technology, agencies are turning to whiz kids, and in these sectors they are truly kids.

Young adults in their 20s have never known a day without computers and complex technology. For many, it is second nature. They started using computers before elementary school and were most likely required to take some computer programming classes.

This same group has never been fully aware of a time in this country before 9/11. They do not think it is odd, unusual, or inconvenient to go through metal detectors every time they enter a public building or to take off their shoes to get on an airplane.

Aaron Swartz (November 8, 1986 – January 11, 2013)

Aaron Swartz (November 8, 1986 – January 11, 2013)

They hit puberty at the same time social media exploded in popularity. Most of them had MySpace pages, then moved on to Facebook, into texting, then on to Twitter and Tumblr. Their lives have never been private. One mother says she was shocked when, in a conversation with her teenager about not putting personal information on the internet because “everyone can see it,” the boy replied, “you don’t understand Mom, I don’t expect anything to be private.”

These people have lived their lives without secrets. Their bags and their bodies have always been open for inspection. Now that they are working for companies and government agencies that claim to have and need secrets, they do not understand. How could they? Right or wrong is another discussion, but these people believe information should be revealed.

Edward Snowden is not the first 20-something computer whiz kid not to understand the need for secrecy. Aaron Swartz was born in 1986 and was a brilliant computer programmer. He became an activist for making all information public information. Swartz helped develop the RSS web feed format and the social news site Reddit. He founded to gather and post information about politicians.

In 2011, Swartz was arrested by Massachusetts Institute of Technology police on breaking and entering charges in connection with the downloading of journals for the intent to make them free and public.

He later became instrumental in the campaign to prevent the passage of the Stop Online Privacy Act, which was criticized on the basis that it would have made it easier for the U.S. government to shut down websites accused of violating copyright and would have placed intolerable burdens on Internet providers.

Bradley Manning (b. Dec. 17, 1987)

Bradley Manning (b. Dec. 17, 1987)

He also downloaded and released an estimated 2.7 million federal documents  stored in the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) database managed by the United States courts.

Swartz downloaded public court documents from the PACER system in an effort to make them available outside of the expensive service. The move drew the attention of the FBI, which ultimately decided not to press charges as the documents, were, in fact, public.

Another “leaker” from this same generation is Bradley Manning, born in 1987. Manning is a United States soldier who was arrested in Iraq on suspicion of passing classified information to the website Wikileaks. The material contained videos of airstrikes, diplomatic cables and logs.  It was the largest set of restricted documents ever leaked to the public.

As agencies continue to hire young computer savvy technicians, they will need to be aware of the attitudes that come with growing up so comfortable with computers in their lives.

For a generation that believes that all information should be public, how can they suddenly be comfortable with a government that keeps secrets?

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Susan L Ruth

Susan L. Ruth is a long-time Washington, DC resident with extensive ties throughout the community.  She is a genealogical researcher and writer, and is an active volunteer in the Northern Virginia competitive swimming community.  Susan previously worked providing life-skills to head injured adults. 

Susan and her husband Kerry currently live in Northern Virginia with their three sons, Ryley, Casey and Jack and their American Bulldog, Leila.


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