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The Guardian's Alan Rusbridger on the Post-Snowden Agenda

BY Micah L. Sifry | Friday, November 14 2014

Alan Rusbridger's slide from Open Up? 2014

Wednesday in London, as part of the annual Open Up? conference hosted by the Omidyar Network, I had the opportunity to interview Alan Rusbridger, the longtime editor of The Guardian newspaper, about the impact of Edward Snowden's revelations of massive government surveillance programs in the United States and United Kingdom. To my surprise, he was much more optimistic about the impact of the stories published in his paper and elsewhere, like the Washington Post and New York Times, than I expected. And he laid out an extraordinarily ambitious agenda of unfinished work that Snowden has prompted.

Even though the sense of urgency and outrage over the NSA and GCHQ's dragnet surveillance may have subsided, he argued that "under the surface…an awful lot has changed." Among those changes: the very rise of open debate in the United States and Europe about these programs, the Obama administration's decision to shift how it stores phone meta-data, the upgrading of network security and encrypted services coming from major tech companies like Apple and Google, and the shifting mindset of both journalists and lawyers, who now understand that their communications aren't secure.

The one shortcoming, Rusbridger said, what that "politics isn't equipped to deal with the enormous number of issues that Snowden has raised." He added, "There's a problem of digital literacy in the people we charge to make these balances on our behalf. I look at the average Congressman or MP and I wonder how much they are equipped to have this discussion.

He then unfurled a slide that encapsulated his notes on "what Snowden has given us." It's quite a list. During the interview, it was literally unreadable from the stage, but here's my best effort to transcribe Rusbridger's catalogue of concerns:


  • backlash
  • businesses built on our data
  • trust
  • $ at risk for US/UK


  • citizens' consent
  • did Parliament/Congress know? agree?
  • is consent meaningful? possible?


  • ISC and Congress
  • judges
  • resources, technical knowledge
  • privacy advocates, PCLOB
  • "capture" mindset?
  • told the truth
  • meaningful?


  • haystack vs needle
  • war on terror
  • paedophiles, organized crime
  • drugs
  • Al Qaeda, ISIL


  • keep everything secret
  • don't alert the bad guys
  • world goes "dark"
  • won't talk to press in UK


  • is it?
  • do they break their own rules?


  • Manning, Snowden
  • giant databases post 9/11
  • impossible to keep secure


  • Google, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, etc
  • security?
  • voluntary/compulsory cooperation
  • users' rights
  • transparency


  • Verizon, Vodafone, etc
  • compulsory or voluntary
  • lawful or beyond?
  • consumers' rights


  • security/backdoors
  • foreign-domestic?
  • cryptology/protocols
  • Balkanization
  • "dark net" - Tor


  • our job 3000 times harder
  • bad guys change opsec


  • Merkel's phone
  • G-20 allies
  • ??
  • UN


  • does it work?
  • is it proportionate
  • how would we know


  • RIPA
  • FISA courts
  • DRIP
  • warrants?
  • "foreign" comms
  • 4th Amendment
  • 1st Amendment
  • Patriot Act
  • 'Snoopers Charter'
  • analogue laws


  • in a time of terror
  • represented in politics


  • Philby
  • Blake
  • Spycatcher
  • Wikileaks


  • "Do you love your country"
  • treason?


  • Espionage Act
  • Official Secrets Act
  • Terror Act
  • David Miranda
  • Australian law
  • destroyed computers


  • Who's a journalist?
  • bloggers vs MSM
  • "activist" v objective
  • Guardian 'open' model
  • NYT/Risen
  • Wikileaks
  • Laura Poitras
  • Glenn Greenwald


  • can't won't discuss
  • narrow framework
  • IT literacy
  • capture?


  • journalists' sources
  • lawyers' communications
  • medical records
  • social media
  • anonymity


  • verifying
  • relative?
  • responsibility to?
  • whistleblower
  • criminal
  • Pentagon Papers


  • prior restraint
  • censorship
  • national security
  • prior notification
  • "responsibility"
  • logistics
  • notice system
  • expertise
  • security
  • BBC?
  • dealings with government (look at/ don't look? rules?)
  • institutional strength


  • data v metadata
  • consent
  • what does meta data know?
  • digital v physical
  • tracking movements
  • ??, relationships


  • US (Hoover, Nixon)
  • Germany (Stais, Nazis)
  • UK (Enigma)
  • Europe
  • Brazil
  • Australia

That's a literally stunning mind map of the post-Snowden agenda, and also quite an intriguing view into Rusbridger's editorial brain. In my opinion, perhaps the only topic not clearly highlighted by his outline is the role of citizens in this debate, as voters, activists and consumers. But I think Rusbridger would agree that the public has a big role to play in sorting out how our world works now that we know what governments can do and have been doing with mass surveillance. During our conversation, I asked him whose job it was to wrestle with all these issues? He joked about perhaps someone funding this work, and then he added, "The only thing that I see that is up to the job of taking on this complexity is the web itself," meaning, all of us.