[We welcome our newest contributor, Gregg Housh, an activist focused on internet freedoms, censorship, over-prosecution and Anonymous. This article is cross-posted at 0v.org. – Alex.]
It was February 6th, 2011 that I had to give some bad news to my wife. Her pseudonym (one she calls “as subtle as John Zeus”) was on the list of supposed “lieutenants of Anonymous” that Aaron Barr of HB Gary Federal had compiled. Barr’s intention was to identify the people involved in various projects on the AnonOps IRC network by connecting them to real social network profiles, and then to somehow parlay this data into brownie points with the FBI. And there she was, in the cross hairs.
At first, she wanted to start writing in her own defense and in defense of the others who had wrongly been placed under suspicion by Barr. While she was not uninvolved as an Anonymous person herself, she limited her involvement to legally and morally sound actions: permitted street demonstrations, leafleting, graphic design, editing and writing website content and press releases, even the occasional video. She’d never even logged into the AnonOps IRC network. She believed, as I do, that Anonymous was a tool that could be used for great things, and it’s up to good people to choose to take action. She believed in the mission of WikiLeaks and the motivations of people like Private Manning (Snowden would come much later), but she did not support DDoS attacks, hacking, or other illegal acts. She just wanted to exercise her right to speak freely about government and private entities whose actions affect all of us, and felt more comfortable doing so behind the mask.
Early on, I invited her to be more publicly involved, but she turned me down every time. She actively avoids cameras whenever we’re at activist events, habitually uses pseudonyms, and shuns the spotlight. Between that and her habit of walking so far behind me in public (which she blames on my long legs but I suspect has more to do with her getting distracted), it sometimes looks like we have a terrible, lopsided arrangement. But this is what she wants. When there was some concern that the Church of Scientology might have figured out who she was, I was the one she called in tears, begging me to make this go away somehow. She has a lot to be scared for.
She has two kids – brilliant little people with strong opinions and spectacular vocabulary – who I am proud to call my step-children. Whenever I end up involved in something that might be seen as “problematic” to our government, they have to be our greatest concern. Could we get them away from the house if we got raided? If they took both of us into custody, could their father or step-mother come out here to get them quickly enough? Those fears temper our actions, make us think twice about speaking our minds even when it is completely within our rights. We have seen too many people go to jail without actually breaking the law, people locked up for years for crimes that should be a fine at most. I’ve had to sit in interrogation rooms just for helping people organize a global protest. We see time and time again the whistleblowers and rabble-rousers suffer for speaking up, while those responsible for war crimes and global economic meltdown never see a day in court. If it was just me, or just the two of us, the internal calculus would be different.
With HB Gary, I didn’t want her to stick her neck out further, didn’t want her to poke the bear. I wanted to keep her safe. In some ways that was selfish of me, because I knew if the pressure got to be too much I would be the one supporting her emotionally through it, and comforting my panicking wife isn’t exactly the sort of thing I want to be doing more of. But in other ways, it was practical. The cost to us if she earned the ire of the authorities would have been very steep. With egg on their face and high profile hacks going on, the odds that the government might take a crack at anyone even tangentially involved were much higher. We couldn’t accept that risk.
She took the news better than I’d feared. She was scared, of course, but she was stronger than she had been back in the days of Chanology. There were no tears, no “make this go away,” she just wanted me to help her figure out what comes next. I suggested not confronting Barr or HB Gary and just letting it go. She agreed, and instead of putting herself out there as one of the people wrongly fingered by Barr, she buried herself in projects and buried her Facebook data in piles of junk, connecting to anything and anyone with a V mask in their photo or “Anon” in the name. Some of her better Anonymous graphics came out at this time.
When I talked with Penny from HB Gary, I couldn’t help but let slip that I was furious that they’d wrongly fingered her as part of the illegal operations on AnonOps. I may have exaggerated her disengagement, but who wouldn’t in those circumstances?
I never meant for her to take this as a permanent recommendation to step back, just a temporary measure. Since then, though, she has been ever more wary of getting involved. She used to organize most of our local events, designed the handouts, created the talking points, yelled and screamed to get people to show up, and stood proud with her mask on. Now she would make plans and let them slide, talk with people about how we should absolutely… and then nothing came of it. Her mood deteriorated, taking significant hits when she lost her mother to cancer and her son struggled to adapt to the school environment. When we did go out to yell at buildings I would see her light back up immediately, but the anxiety would always roll back in.
Surveillance culture has taught her to shut up. I see her pushing back on it, but it’s hard to overcome that fear when you have something to lose. She never wanted to break the law, never wanted anything other than to make the world a better place. She has the skills to demonstrate to the public why our causes are so important in a way they can understand, and she keeps biting her tongue. Because the government has everything. They know where we live, where our kids go to school, where we sleep. They have her phone records and our private conversations. They have her emails and her walking habits and her Skype account. And even though she’s never done anything wrong, they’ve written the laws so that all of us are criminals by technicality. They can manufacture a case against any of us, and make us miserable for years with no resolution, no appeals process, and no repercussions for overzealous prosecutors or voyeuristic spy agencies.
As long as we allow this culture to persist, good people will be too afraid to speak up. As long as we as a civilization accept these constant, flagrant violations of our civil rights, good ideas will go to waste, and open dialogue between the people and their government will be impossible. This is not an acceptable cost for theoretical protection from terrorist attacks. The NSA and other government agencies have abused the public trust, and have no intention to make things right with the people. The private companies that profit from this culture have betrayed their countrymen, and will lobby to ensure that things do not change.
I don’t know how we fix this. We sometimes talk about it, trading off nights when she’s more pessimistic or I am. There are no easy answers, no simple path to a functional relationship with our government. But the one thing we know is that shutting up isn’t an answer. We have to speak out even when we’re afraid – especially when we’re afraid. All of us.