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 474.

    "tacit contract"
    A contract with holes, a deal of cards made oppressive by the profound ignorance of all, accepting fear, indulging greed, 'nerds' like everybody else, on their own, but taken to the highest, seeing through a world of lies, 'nerds' just wanna belong, equally, not stupid smart or hypocritical, parasitic cool or predatory, democratic sense, even if that means the cross

  • rate this

    Comment number 473.

    I see some are now starting to label him as a traitor. Well, if people want to go down that inflammatory path, I'm happy to play along. I would argue the true traitors are those in Congress who lie to get into power. Then, whilst there, they're available for hire to whoever has the deepest pockets. These politicians betray US national interests for their own self interest. They are true traitors.

  • rate this

    Comment number 472.


    The internet is just one of those things where there is no privacy

    In fact there is likely more privacy in mailing a letter (old fashioned)
    than email

    So how far is going too far?

    I wonder where Mr Snowden is- perhaps he has already been found by CIA or maybe he snuck off to Russia

    It is odd he was hiding out in Hong Kong when China doesn't allow freedom of speech

  • rate this

    Comment number 471.

    This 'EU should fund alternative to Google' by EU Observer, made me roll up with laughter. We have some very serious problems around the world and l blame it all on fluridation of the water. It was a huge mistake, perhaps the biggest ever after mark to market and no one, ever, is going to own up are they. Unless of course Mr Snowden has an ace up his sleeve. Ya never know these days.

  • Comment number 470.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 469.

    I really hope this distraction does not diminish the gathering effort to put tax dodgers where they belong. Who actually benefits from this disaster.

    Let's nail the evil anti tax people and watch the current chaos blow over.

    People have been spying for.... ever.
    We worship them or we shoot them.

  • Comment number 468.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 467.

    The tacit contract between a government and the people governed is that the government will trust the people and the people will trust the government. But once the government begins to mistrust the people it is governing, it loses its mandate to rule because it is no longer acting as a spokesman for the people, but is acting as an agent of persecution. (No reason to remove this now mods).

  • rate this

    Comment number 466.

    They have treated us as enimies, how, now, do they think we should act, or feel. This peoples of the old world combined, whose high ideals have been guttered my this treachery of friends and allies, the free world, and trust. They disgust and sadden me, but worst of all, they have belittled all that has gone before, and all of us in the free world. I hope they choke on their excuses, never again.

  • Comment number 465.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 464.

    Dear Mark Mandell: I wish to add, in more temperate voice, a few more words. Interesting piece, and thanks, however, as see it, so far, the Manning case and the Snowden case are especially different. Manning leaked content, Snowden has leaked activity and method. There's a huge difference. I find it hard to admire Manning, and think that Snowden may be the real US hero here. Thanks

  • rate this

    Comment number 463.

    459. It does strike me as odd. I'm unimpressed with his interview.

    456. Sage is not the word for Snowden, whether or not he is a nerd or has a high IQ. Being an average or even genius techie, or a whistleblower, does not prove wisdom.

  • rate this

    Comment number 462.

    They've fired him, for breach of their ethics code, what bloody ethics, untrustworthy Yankers. I hope he sues for wrongful dismissal, on the grounds that they,re a bunch of twots without ethics or anything much worth a yank.The west shall not forget this intrusion, this unholy attack by the sons of indecency and mistrust. Never again, will they be considered allies of any true worth.Ethics indeed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 461.

    Mark, it is a short step from collecting that type of information to using it to manipulate and control the boundaries of class structure, wealth, who can associate with whom, who can marry whom, who can achieve success. There are reasons to believe that the information has already achieved a history of abuse contrary to the fundamental provisions of the constitution of the United States.

  • rate this

    Comment number 460.

    It's not so much private citizens that are spied on by America but today's most innovative countries - Germany, China and India according to Max Keiser on Russia Today.

    For the US to complain about Chinese spying on its industrial and technological secrets is just a smokescreen to deflect from its own world wide listening operations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 459.

    I think we're going to find out in time that Snowden's expressed concern about the direction surveillance in society was a smokescreen. Seriously, he's so concerned about government surveillance of private citizens that he flees to China of all places? Doesn't that strike anyone as odd?

  • rate this

    Comment number 458.

    The main thing this has taught us is that a large slice of the population is paranoid and thinks their small doings are of great interest to the security services.

    Really its just noise, but Facebook etc has convinced them that their most tedious utterance is of import. All rather sad.

  • rate this

    Comment number 457.

    Trust your government as much as it trusts you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 456.


    I dislike the term "nerd", similarly with such terms as "geek", "egghead", "weirdo" etc. All of them are sageist, i.e. anti sage, anti intellectual. The sages of the world (the high IQ intellectuals) need a social movement equivalent to those against sexism, racism, ageism, etc. so that society has its consciousness raised against discriminating against the sages.

  • rate this

    Comment number 455.

    He choose his line of work. He should have lived with the consequences.

    He has chosen his course of action. Now he will have to live with the consequences.


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