The Smart Kids Are Going To Keep Leaking Forever

Daniel Ellsberg attended Harvard and Cambridge, became a decorated Marine and Pentagon analyst—and then, at 38, produced the greatest document leak in American history. He cited unjust warfare and official lies. Edward Snowden dropped out of high school and produced perhaps the second greatest leak at 29. He cited Reddit. The bad news for American intelligence: the Snowdens are here to stay.

Like Bradley Manning and even Aaron Swartz before him, Snowden is an uncommonly (overly?) brave ideologue. He is part of a new wave of radicalized nerd martyrs with limited allegiance to the monolithic institutions of state power that have traditionally recruited and manufactured our spies. There was a time when the U.S. intelligence community was populated by straight-laced company men like Ellsberg—men (yes, men, mostly) who justified their actions with the authority of God, country, and their Ivy League alma maters. And when, like Ellsberg and Philip Agee before him, they turned on their masters, it was in service of other, competing authorities.

But our comic book-sized spy apparatus doesn't just need good soldiers anymore. It needs smart employees who aren’t old. Spy monoliths like the NSA crave analysts, technicians, and officers who grew up making and breaking the same systems they’ll be tapping around the world. The NSA actively seeks out hackers—the bandits! These kids—the Snowdens—are different than the staid spooks who preceded them.

They probably grew up stealing music. They at least know what Reddit and 4chan are—there’s a decent chance Snowden used the latter.

They don't need Ivy League grooming—or much more than a middle-school education. Snowden was able to reach a startlingly high clearance perch without any diplomas at all. They don’t need to be trained and hammered by the military before being deemed fit for The Company—or in Manning’s case, they can be grossly disenchanted right from the barracks. Ellsberg’s path of Ivy League schooling, rigorous military training, and then sudden radicalization no longer supplies the NSA’s needs—those guys sell Bloomberg terminals now or whatever. Real nerds are the prizes, and along with their comp sci CVs comes a peculiar new kind of extremsm: anti-government anger doesn’t fester in Greek Marxist cells, where violence just flops from one extreme to another—it hovers around libertarian subreddits, Hacker News, Anonymous IRC cabals, and EFF meetups. When Ellsberg snapped, it was a thwack against a lifetime of American tradition. It doesn't look like Snowden or Manning were ever good at tradition (or cared to be)—they're not so much loners, as David Brooks says, but grunts in a different kind of army, a broad internet culture. These new mega-leakers turn their sights on state secrets not so much because the flag looks threatened, but in defense of principles that could be applied to downloaders on any corner of the global internet. Nationalism is for olds. Dreamy-eyed geo-drama tops everything else for these kids. Bradley Manning said it in 2010:

(02:26:01 PM) bradass87: i dont believe in good guys versus bad guys anymore… i only a plethora of states acting in self interest… with varying ethics and moral standards of course, but self-interest nonetheless

Now it’s Edward Snowden’s turn:

“I don't want to live in a world where there's no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity."

That’s a world where overreaching copyright, corporations, and DRM are the devils, where massive data repositories aren’t scary because they exist, but because they’re not open source. Information Wants To Be Free, the bumper stickers and Reddit sloganeering goes—the freedom of a Ron Paul message board, of Bitcoin speculation, dystopian videogames, TOR encryption, and information dumps, not the freedom that goes along with the home of the brave. Snowden’s motivations—the liberation of data as a global political end, not a means—don’t make his self-immolation outing in the press any less daring. But don't be shocked to see the humblest of geeks shifting the planet and tormenting governments anymore—there are only more waiting to get their security clearances.