A hackivist’s call for a culture of engagement

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Shava Nerad

By Shava Nerad

[Editor’s note: Last week, the Guardian reached out to a number of experts and technologists to gauge reactions on revelations of the massive National Security Agency spying program that recently came to light. Shava Nerad, who started her career as a software engineer and was previously involved with the Tor Project, which offers online anonymity in web browsing, has also been engaged in various forms of political activism. Nerad submitted comments via email in response to the Bay Guardian’s request for an interview. We've published an edited version of her thoughts here.]

My dad worked with MLK and the SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] every summer of the early/mid 60s -- and the FBI knew who he had lunch with every day of those summers -- this stuff isn't really that new, it's just automated. I got to go from "We Shall Overcome" to making sure that the Tor Project could get US nonprofit status, a good foundation of funding, a great reputation internationally, and become infrastructural for free press, free speech, and free expression on the net.

I come from a family of old style liberals from a time before the 60s, when intellectual liberals were in the military, in finance, in civil service and all parts of civic life. We moderated all parts of American society. After the 60s, to a large extent, it became uncool for liberals and intellectuals (even non-hippie types) to go into these Establishment pastimes, especially the volunteer or low paying scutwork that keeps this country running. So after half a century, what are we seeing? Largely unmoderated by liberal intellectual thought, with two generations of kids who don't even know how to go to a public meeting or why or how politics actually works at most levels in this country, we are a goddamn mess.

I have a son in the military, and I have friends in the [Department of Homeland Security], law enforcement, a friend who's a retired CIA analyst. But many of my friends consider me an outspoken lefty liberal (I don't) because I am a Democratic Party activist, a strong civil libertarian, a union member ... and a sort of hippie chick.

I love this wonderful flawed country. I want to tell every one of my folks here, get out of your ergonomic chairs … and get involved. Congress' approval rating is up two percent since March to fifteen percent -- and they won't fix the USA PATRIOT Act because they aren't a bit afraid of your disapproval!  In fact, if you say you disapprove, they will make googly eyes at you, and say "Oooooo TERRORISTS!!!" and expect you to back down and shut up -- and unfortunately they are probably right.

If we are the engineers and the scientists, the innovators and the entrepreneurs -- can't we find the best way to fix our culture of engagement?  Make our culture a culture where the makers learn applied civics and share their successes on social networking?

Many of us who are "hactivists" are post-conventional thinkers, if you are familiar with that concept. Most of us do not believe that the system is irrevocably broken -- we are not revolutionaries or traitors or terrorists. This is why we are making moves that are aimed toward waking up the public, not blowing them up.  If that isn't clear enough, I can't see what would be -- we certainly have ample examples of violence in the world. We are sending signals that say, "Please, see that everything is not exactly as you have been told. You are citizens of a Republic. Take the reins and bring it back to rights. Your rights."

Civil disobedients, whistleblowers, leakers, facilitators like Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, William Binney, Nicholas Merrill, Jake Appelbaum and more -- these people should be honored rather than vilified as people who were willing to risk everything they had in order to send up a distress signal to the nation to say, "All is not right."

But if every person of good character left all the military, law enforcement, DHS, government -- then we would be a mess. Not everyone can leave. Someone has to break ranks, betray unit cohesion, take these risks, and risk being branded as a traitor even (and all of those men have been by some people).  

The American public has to wake up and understand that all is not right BECAUSE IT IS NOT.  DHS cannot fix the USA PATRIOT Act. Congress won't fix it so long as the people moan about it on blogs and don't insist that action be taken.

I have spoken to people in DHS since 9/11 who have been waiting to exhale for over a decade. Do you understand the situation that many in the career diplomatic services believed that they were in during [George W. Bush’s]'s administration? That they were hanging on by their fingernails, as professional diplomats and civil servants? 

Well, oddly, when Obama came in, State gave a great many of these people an opportunity to exhale. But … oddly, the new boss, and the Congress just piled on more of the same. No reprieve.

So we have the State Department declaring Internet Freedom and distributing Tor overseas, and Prism turned inward at our own people?  What sense does this make?  Praising the Arab Spring, and chasing American citizens with drones?  

The nation is sleeping or ostriching, and I'm sorry, but the press is sleeping or at the least, distracted by survivability issues. We need to turn this into a great and heroic national adventure story, or it's going to turn into a national tragedy.

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