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    The Absurdity of Destroying a Hard Drive to Conceal the Truth

    Written by

    DJ Pangburn


    Image: Flickr

    The thing about information is that it cannot be contained. It may not necessarily want to be free, as we so often hear—but, in our interconnected age, information definitely lives in various locations, not simply in hard drives. And, yet, this fact seems to have been lost on the UK government in the ongoing NSA leaks saga.

    The Guardian's editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger revealed that had destroyed two hard drives containing Edward Snowden's NSA leaks at the behest of GCHQ, the British equivalent to the NSA. This was done in the presence of two GCHQ officials acting on behalf of Prime Minister David Cameron.

    While the mangling of the hard drives was little more than a symbolic gesture at eliminating the Snowden data, it is just another entry in a long list of official absurdities that have grown out of the leaks. Yet it's an absurdity with some very real implications for journalists and free speech.

    As Rusbridger noted Monday, the UK government effectively enforced prior restraint on The Guardian, something the US government cannot legally compel journalists and publications to do. Well, unless the Department of Justice takes journalists and publishers to court over espionage violations, as it did with The New York Times and Washington Post when they published Daniel Ellsberg's leaked Pentagon Papers. 

    Have we regressed to the point that in a supposedly modern country such as the UK, due process and free speech can be destroyed with blunt force? It would certainly seem so. But isn't Cameron's request and manner of thinking an exercise in futility?

    As psychological warfare, it may have some utility—some function as a deterrent. If not for Greenwald, who all but declared war on the UK government after his partner David Miranda was detained by UK officials en route to Brazil, then for other would-be ambitious critics of the state who seek insider information by cozying up to whistle blowers. In that respect, it may be a symbolic gesture to journalism careerists instead of dyed-in-the-wool agitators with pens. 

    The move will not staunch the flow of the leaks. It clearly didn't scare Greenwald, nor will it succeed in scaring off other truth-seeking journalists. So, what real purpose does Cameron's request serve? What is the UK government's endgame aside from inadvertently demonstrating the absurd heights of state secrecy?

    Even Rusbridger acknowledges the futility of the hard drive destruction.

    "It was a rather bizarre situation in which I explained to them that there were other copies and, as with WikiLeaks, we weren't working in London alone so destroying a copy in London seemed to me a slightly pointless task that didn't take account of the way that digital information works these days," Rusbridger told BBC Radio 4's The World at One today. 

    "Given that there were other copies and we could work out of America, which has better laws to protect journalists, I saw no reason not to destroy this material ourselves rather than hand it back to the government."

    "To try and stamp out truth-seekers by destroying hard drives is a bit like trying to program all biological flaws out of nature. Not only is it impossible, it will inevitably backfire."

    For Rusbridger, it was tactical; a means of allowing The Guardian to work outside the UK. Which raises an interesting question: could the goal be to leave journalists with no quarter or safe haven, just like terrorists? In other words, will the journalist, like the whistleblower, become the state's new terrorist? It wouldn't be the first time.

    It is, in fact, a hallmark of states tending toward the fascist experience. I don't invoke that word lightly. It's leveled at people and states too often. But, with The Guardian's recent experiences in the UK, it seems absolutely appropriate. And I wouldn't count on the US's prior restraint case law protecting journalists working in America. 

    Even so, we must circle back to information tending toward freedom. A hyper-connected world, allowing for vast amounts of commercial transactions and state surveillance, simply cannot exist without secret data making its way out into the digital ether.

    This is a quirk of the system—a mathematical flaw when viewed from the state perspective. It's like The Matrix's Architect failing again and again to eliminate Neo and the rebels from the system's code. This bug, for lack of a better term, can be likened to the biological flaws occurring in nature. To try and stamp out truth-seekers by destroying hard drives is a bit like trying to program all biological flaws out of nature. Not only is it impossible, it will inevitably backfire.

    And this flaw in design, this bug, can be extended to the anti-world of terrorism. Violent acts aimed at the status quo have been and will always be a feature of humanity and its governments in some form or another. The tactic cannot be stopped. And the ability to limit its frequency is marginal at best. View the number of successful terrorists attacks since 9/11 in relation to total population against thwarted terrorist attacks versus total population, and you will begin to see the picture. The state's actual anti-terrorism successes versus their total information awareness is laughable. And the only way to justify it in the long term is to find new, non-Islamic terrorists—whistle blowers, and now, journalists. Soon, it could very well be any dissident voice.

    Still, the truth-seeking bug or virus will endure despite power's best efforts.