Rise of the idealistic nerd

US President Barack Obama in San Jose, California 7 June 2013 President Obama said the surveillance programme was strictly monitored by lawmakers and a secret court

US President Barack Obama says he welcomes a debate about the right balance between privacy and security. That is good, because it will rage for a long while.

I suspect many in his administration are not quite so pleased about this public airing of secrets, but there is nothing now that can put the genie back in the bottle.

It is not only the raw debate that will grow. So will the argument about whether the people behind the leaks are heroes or villains.

It strikes me that the revelations made by ex-CIA employee Edward Snowden are of a piece with those of US soldier Bradley Manning when he gave a vast stash of US documents to the website Wikileaks.

Neither are leaks in the old sense - of a single, sensational story about a particularly scandalous operation.

Instead they are, at heart, about the breadth and depth of intelligence gathering and how the internet changes spying itself.

It is also about two young men who were horrified by what they saw going on and decided to expose it - in the words of my colleague, Paul Adams, "the rise of the idealistic nerd".

Edward Snowden (picture courtesy of the Guardian) Edward Snowden said he "did not want to live in a society that does these sorts of things"

It is probable that as the technology changed, intelligence services had to hugely increase the number of fairly low-level experts they employ.

Possibly, their background checks were less rigorous than in the past. Maybe the type of person recruited was more committed to a technology that has gone hand in hand with a vaguely libertarian ethos than a commitment to national security, whatever the implications for privacy and freedom.

It is not certain how this will play for Mr Obama, but it does not look great.

It is true that it runs against the right's narrative: "Obama is weak on national security."

Once again, as with drones, he has shown himself to be rather ruthless with the niceties.

On the other hand, it plays right in to the hands of another conservative narrative: "President Obama expands the power of the state."

Given that it comes on top of the tax scandal at the Internal Revenue Service, and the raid on the Associated Press, it builds up a picture of an administration that plays fast and lose with civil liberties.

This resonates with the president's own natural supporters as well, and those on the left who feel "he is just as bad as former President George W Bush".

It adds to the general feeling of cynicism about politicians and suspicion of the power of the state.

Mark Mardell Article written by Mark Mardell Mark Mardell Presenter, The World This Weekend

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  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    On "the raw debate", investment WILL continue - 'must continue' - on ALL sides, to combat each other's 'terror'

    Asking, "heroes or villains", even non-nerds should consider context, of global population division (opposed camps, heroes & villains perhaps), & domestic population division (similarly ghettoised)

    We inherit irrational divisions, democracy is mocked, and all are at risk of 'seeing'

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    It's an exiting time to be alive folks. For the whole world. Everything isn't easy, and it won't be for a long time. It's not easy for Pastor Saeed in Evin Prison either. Sorry for the tangent.

    This latest leak was by a civiliian, not by a soldier who voluntarily submitted to the UCMJ. And the leaker fled to China, notorious for repressing civil liberties. Makes you think doesn't it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    What on earth are you doing liking it on Facebook and being utter Twit…ers to similar others like yourself and inviting the world to marvel at your own pointless and insignificant life?

    Either you stop using social media sites or you have justification to complain that this matter is a breach of your privacy. You can’t have both!!! Can you?

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    "Welcomes a debate," but with whom? I guess the next election.

    Will the privacy issues, the IRS scandal and other current issues result in a sufficient anti-state uproar to give those who lean toward libertarianism a shot?

    I doubt it...too many Americans dependent on an over-bearing government now...people will value their unemployment and federal subsidies over their freedom.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Little by little, the truth will out. What was done in darkness, has now come in to light, the bearer of the torch, for liberty and justice and freedom, is neither the British or USA governments. oppressors of truth, are the spies, not the spied upon.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    "Monitored by a secret court"? Would that be the Court of the Star Chamber? I suppose ECHELON wasn't good enough. Back in the '70s these kind of things got people acting up, today it's roll over & play dead: good dog! good dog…

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Obama says he welcomes a debate. Which debate would that be? The one so secret we cannot know about it?

    Kind of hard to have a debate when even access to govt. requests that have been rejected by the secret court are kept from the public.

    Someone needs to have him define "debate" and exactly how that would work given the "national security" shield he operates behind.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    The USA PATRIOT Act is like an assault rifle for the Executive Department. Like an assault rifle in the hands of a civilian, it is very effective at what it does. Also, it is dangerous and should not be allowed. Obama has recognized the harm in assault rifles, but not yet that in the USA PATRIOT Act. The Act needs to be repealed. Secret courts and massive surveillance is not the way to go.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Instead of knee jerk reaction, or blaming Obama before all the facts are in, maybe Americans need to find out if the government is doing anything not authorized by the Patriot Act. As the president said, the government must strike a balance in securing America & protecting civil liberties & privacy. Privacy this day, is an illusion. Government & the private sectors know everything about all of us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Bradley Manning, Julian Assange and wikileaks, and now, Edward Snowden, one can only wonder, who and what next. The spies must now be so paranoid, that they don't even trust themselves, but then again, who does?.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    It's better that this wake up call happened now rather then later as Obama still has time to recover, but his window is closing fast.

  • Comment number 23.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Unfortunately the poor chap appears not to be covered by the First Amendment which extols the virtues of his right to freedom of speech. So just to confirm: the First Amendment covers the burning of The Koran but not for whistleblowing or publishing top secret files on wikileaks.
    Strange but true?

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Has he been signed up by a Hollywood studio yet?

    This story should be good for at least 2 films.

    More if they can sign up Bradley Manning too...

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    What a world of hypocrisy - demo-crazy Washington way or no other way, eh? Never knew Uncle Sam, (US) could do to his nephew what he accuse the Chinese of doing their citizens.

  • Comment number 19.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Just imagine, my comment to this forum is being monitored by some lost soul who has nothing better to do in his or her life except pry on people, so I'd better not say what I was going to say in case I get a knock at my door later today.... hey, Barack, enjoy the show!

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Intelligence: We use to listen to military frequencies, so they invented devices like the enigma. Cracking that little gem would be classed as ok by the public because it shortened the war and saved lives.

    Now that the military and public communications have merged, the enigma would be now out of bounds, untouchable to the intelligence services, resulting in huge loss of life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    #11 Curt Carpenter
    Another irony is Snowdwnchosing Hong Kong. Chinese aren't so hot on free speech. Plus bless their citizens with even more surveilance than we do. Interesting to see what the Chines do with him

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    If you couple the power of intrusion into your private communications, with the power apparently given to the IRS, not to mention the power of drones to pick off people from the safety of a dim room lit by the screen of a computer, you will see that all possibility of political dissent is either obliterated or made so risky that no one will engage in it. If that is not totalitarianism, what is?


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