Blacklists then and now

In his keynote talk at the 30th Chaos Communications Congress (30C3) conference last month to an audience that consisted to a large extent of computer professionals and systems administrators, Glenn Greenwald talked about one encouraging sign that he has observed, and that is the increased resistance he has observed among ordinary people, especially those in the tech industry.

He said that Laura Poitras, Edward Snowden, and Chelsea Manning deserve much of the credit for this, all of whose actions can be traced back to Wikileaks and further back to Daniel Ellsberg, who inspired many people with the idea that they can and should defy government coercion and secrecy in the public interest. He spoke about how as a result more and more people are willing to defy their governments, even though doing so puts them on the various infamous lists that result in them being subject them to all manner of harassment.

The reason why that’s so amazing to me is because the reason the people on that list, and others like them, pay a price, is because the United States knows that it’s only hope for continuing to maintain its regimen of secrecy, behind which it can engage in those radical and corrupt acts, is to intimidate, deter and threaten people who are would-be whistleblowers and transparency activists from coming forward and doing what it is that they do by showing them that they would be subjected to even the most extreme punishments and there’s nothing anybody can do about it.

[audience applauds]

It’s an effective tactic. It works for some people, not because those people are cowardly, but because they’re rational. It really is the case that the United States and the British government are not only willing, but able to essentially engage in any conduct, no matter how grotesque, no matter how extreme, no matter how lawless, with very little opposition that they perceive is enough to make them not want to do it. So there are activists who rationally conclude that it’s not worth the price for me to pay in order to engage in that behaviour. That’s why they continue to do it. But the paradox is that there are a lot of other people, I think even more people, who react in exactly the opposite way.

When they see the US and the UK government showing their true face, showing the extent to which they’re willing to abuse their power, they don’t become scared or deterred, they become even more emboldened. And the reason for that is that when you see that these governments are really capable of that level of abuse of power, you realize that you can no longer, in good conscience, stand by and do nothing. It becomes an even greater imperative for you to come forward and shine a light on what they’re doing, and if you listen to any of those whistleblowers or activists, they’ll all say the same thing.

He describes the US government’s actions and how extreme they have become.

It’s become extremely clear, at this point, that the US government, from the highest levels on down, is completely committed to pursuing only one outcome. That outcome is one where Edward Snowden ends up spending several decades, if not the rest of his life, in a small cage, probably cut off, in terms of communication, with the rest of the world. And the reason why they’re so intent on doing that is not hard to see. It’s not because they’re worried, that society needs to be protected from Edward Snowden, and from him repeating these actions. I think it’s probably a pretty safe bet that Edward Snowden’s security clearance is more or less permanently revoked.

[audience laughter]

The reason they’re so intent on it is because they cannot allow Edward Snowden to live any sort of a decent and free life because they’re petrified that that will inspire other people to follow his example, and to be unwilling to maintain this bond of secrecy when maintaining that bond does nothing but hide illegal and damaging conduct from the people who are most affected by it.

And what I find most amazing about that is not that the United States government is doing that, that’s what they do. It’s who they are. What I find amazing about it is that there are so many governments around the world, including ones that are capable of protecting his human rights, and who have been the biggest beneficiaries of his heroic revelations, who are willing to stand by and watch his human rights be crushed, him be imprisoned for the crime of showing the world what’s being done to their privacy.

Last weekend I watched the 1976 Woody Allen film The Front. It takes place in the 1950s during the time that anti-Communist fervor was at its height and the government was spying on people and coercing them to spy on others, and anyone who was suspected of having leftist sympathies was blacklisted and could no longer work. Interestingly, director Martin Ritt, screenwriter Walter Bernstein, and actors Zero Mostel, Herschel Bernardi, and Lloyd Gough had themselves all been blacklisted and the film was based on many of their own experiences and those of their friends and colleagues.

Woody Allen plays Howard Prince, a cashier and small-time amateur bookie who is always in debt who is asked by his blacklisted writer friend to submit scripts on his behalf. He agrees and soon becomes known as a brilliant writer and draws the attention of congressional investigators and their agents.

While watching the film, I was struck by how the language and tactics used to scare people then parallels what we hear now. Replace ‘Communism’ with ‘terrorism’ and there you are. As one example, an investigator of alleged subversives says to Mostel to get him to spy on Allen,”We are in a war … against a ruthless and tricky enemy who will stop at nothing to destroy our way of life. To be a spy on the side of freedom is an honor.” In another example, Allen’s writer friend who is worried that Allen is being targeted, to be made an example of for others says, “They want to show that there’s nothing that they can’t get people to do…. They want Howard Prince Edward Snowden to scare people, to shut them up.”

I could not find a trailer for the film but here is a short early scene that sets up the plot.


  1. wtfwhateverd00d says

    And it’s not just government.

    There are many people today (many of whom are at or egged on by the FTB blogging network) busily compiling blacklists, wanting to make sure everyone knows the torrid details of what someone said on twitter that makes them ineligible for employment.

    It’s one reason you should be a strong proponent of anonymity, and also why you should get rid of the gravatars and email addresses you require to post here — those are privacy leaks that can be abused by the NSA as well as private companies or any private individual trying to break and out people.

  2. Nathair says

    There are many people today … busily compiling blacklists

    Yeah, because getting your name on Steve’s Blacklist (written in crayon and thumbtacked to the corkboard over his desk) is exactly as threatening to us as a concerted, covert, multi-billion dollar effort by a conspiracy of national governments to subvert everyone’s human rights.

    It’s one reason you should be a strong proponent of anonymity, and also why you should get rid of the gravatars and email addresses you require to post here

    You’re right! This is dangerous! Maybe you should stop posting here. Immediately.

  3. wtfwhateverd00d says

    “You’re right! This is dangerous! Maybe you should stop posting here. Immediately”

    Ask Mano, probably to his annoyance, I change my phony email address somewhat often. But thanks for the reminder, it’s time to do that again.

  4. wtfwhateverd00d says

    “You’re right! This is dangerous! Maybe you should stop posting here. Immediately.”

    It is always amusing how quick the intolerant tolerant of FTB leap to tell other people they shouldn’t post.

  5. Nick Gotts says

    Well, you have to take into account that ignorance and stupidity such as yours is very annoying to intelligent, rational people.

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