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Towards the end of 2012, journalist Glenn Greenwald received an email from an anonymous source calling himself Cincinnatus. Intimating insider knowledge of the American government’s mass surveillance programmes, the email piqued Greenwald’s interest, but there was a stumbling block: his source insisted on using the encryption tool PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) for any ongoing correspondence. Despite Cincinnatus’s repeated attempts to ease the learning curve associated with PGP—even creating a suite of training materials specifically for journalists—Greenwald found the required upskilling a bridge too far, and the correspondence fizzled out.
Frustrated, but driven to carry on, the anonymous source contacted someone who’d already learned the necessity of encrypted communication, filmmaker Laura Poitras. By this time Cincinnatus had chosen a new name, Citizenfour, and was soon to be revealed as CIA contractor Edward Snowden.
If you’re a fan of Snowden’s efforts to expose the far-reaching surveillance strategies of the Five Eyes alliance, you might say all’s well that ends well—except for his exile in Russia, I guess. After all, it was arguably due to Greenwald’s tech naivete that we ended up with Poitras’s Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour, and once aware of the extent of the story’s implications, Poitras did quickly bring Greenwald into the PGP fold. But the lesson I take from this anecdote, and the one Greenwald takes from it too, is how his reticence to prioritise upskilling in security measures nearly stopped him from getting the scoop of the century.
As he writes in No Place to Hide, “on my always too-long list of things to take care of, installing encryption technology at the behest of this unknown person never became pressing enough for me to stop other things and focus on it… how close I came to blowing off one of the largest and most consequential national security leaks in US history.”
What is it about our reluctance to learn knew things that might greatly benefit us, and to prioritise setting aside time to do so? We can always trundle out the convenient excuse of being too busy, but my theory is that much of the time we know better. Often we suspect there’s a more efficient way of doing things, or an important thing we don’t know how to do but should, but due to some combination of fear and laziness—and sure, busyness as well—we fall short of putting in the required effort to reap the rewards, and sell ourselves short in the process.
As a case in point take Last Week Tonight host John Oliver. Despite knowing the ramifications and reach of Snowden’s revelations, and travelling to Russia to interview him in person, Oliver found it hard to stay focussed during the whistleblower’s earnest technical explanations: “This is the whole problem, I glaze over. It’s like the IT guy comes in and I’m like ‘oh shit don’t teach me anything, I don’t want to learn.’”
I guess these days I’m one of those IT guys, and while I understand the sentiment, I find it disappointing all the same. Shouldn’t we always want to learn? Oliver did, however, have a typically subversive solution to offer. Rather than talk about privacy in general terms, he asked Snowden to relate these issues to something the American public apparently care a great deal about—whether dick pics can be intercepted, viewed, and stored by the government. The answer is yes, a lot of the time, according to Snowden. My takeaway? Activating self-interest is the gold standard in motivating someone to learn something.
Whatever the motivation—but hopefully something a little more pure than fear of dick pic exposure—I do encourage anyone interested in this area to take the Open University’s excellent, and entirely free, “Introduction to Cyber Security” online course, beginning in October. You can sign up at bit.ly/1pMMKhk. It’ll not only help protect yourself from cyber attacks and data theft, but also give you a great overview of how information travels around the internet. Trust me, the payoff will be well worth the time invested.
Of course, these days it’s not just clandestine intelligence agencies aiming to “collect it all” that we might consider surveillance, but companies hankering for data (and not shy about mining it from their customers), news hungry media, closed circuit televisions, smart phones cameras, and ubiquitous social media feeds. Victoria media studies lecturer Kathleen Kuehn has done some interesting research in this area, and I for one will be keeping my eyes peeled for her forthcoming book The Post-Snowden Era: Mass Surveillance and Privacy in New Zealand. Yep, that anonymous source that Greenwald came so close to blowing off? His name is now not only a household one, but invoked to mark a new era.