The remains of a MacBook that once contained classified information from whistleblower Edward Snowden are on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum of art and design in London. The computer is part of the “All of This Belongs to You” exhibit, open until July 19. The MacBook was destroyed in 2013 after a string of reports from British news organization “The Guardian” brought massive attention to the National Security Agency’s secretive system of international surveillance.
How did a story about U.S. government intelligence collection transform into an art display in Britain featuring a smashed-up computer?
Prior to the leak, Snowden was an infrastructure analyst working for consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton in an NSA center in Hawaii. After years of working with access to massive amounts of data illegally obtained by the government agency, Snowden stole information directly from the NSA and anonymously contacted journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras. His goal was to alert the public about the government’s collection of private information, such as phone calls and Internet chat room logs, from its citizens without a warrant.
“When you’re in positions of privilege access (…) you’re exposed to a lot more information on a broader scale than the average employee,” Snowden said to Greenwald about his job at the NSA. “Because of that, you see things that may be disturbing. You recognize that some of these things are actually abuses. Over time, that awareness of wrongdoing sort of builds up, and you feel compelled to talk about it (…) until eventually you realize that these things need to be determined by the public, not by somebody who was simply hired by the government.”
On June 14, 2013, U.S. federal prosecutors charged Snowden with theft of government property and violating two counts of the 1917 Espionage Act.
The NSA argues that, in order to prevent future atrocities like the 9/11 attacks, they need as much information as they can get. To be able to find that tiny bit of information that can help to prevent a terrorist attack, the NSA needs to be able to sift through all of it.
“In the end, we can’t be transparent about most of these issues,” former NSA General Counsel Stewart Baker said to “The Guardian,” “and we have to get comfortable with the idea that we’re delegating to somebody the ability to learn the secrets, to review what’s being done, and to determine whether its being done properly. We cannot simply bring in everybody off the street and tell them what’s happening.”
The event sparked widespread debate. As more information was revealed, the issue evolved into an international discussion on civil liberties, private rights, and the limit of government.
In January 2014, to symbolize the ongoing dialogue, editors at “The Guardian” took angle grinders and drills to their MacBooks, which carried the confidential information Snowden passed along. Today, the technological remnants are present in the V&A Museum.
“It is difficult for museums to exhibit the public sphere of debate and openness. It’s an even greater challenge when the public sphere exists inside our cell phones and laptops and in the circulation of bits over fiber optic cables,” Steven Lubar, Professor of American Studies, History, and History of Art and Architecture at Brown University, said to “The Guardian” about the display. “The V&A exhibition of the shockingly defaced laptop that once contained National Security Agency secrets reveals that something has gone wrong. Why is a museum known for beautiful artifacts showing an act of violence? That the destruction was purely symbolic magnifies the impact.”
The exhibit is not the only cultural event spurred on by the political story. Poitras’ documentary “CitizenFour” won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars this February.
Poitras’ film chronicles firsthand the events of the NSA leak, from her and Greenwald’s first contract to Snowden’s asylum in Russia.
In an interview with Amanda Lang of CBS News, Poitras said: “In history, we’re at a crossroads. Technology is outpacing what we’re able to do in terms of democratic oversight. We don’t understand how these technological shirts are going to impact people going forward. [Snowden] has given us a moment to reflect and make decisions.”
Rob Spadafore is a writer for The Insider.