The Geeks Who Leak

The President calls them a threat to national security. The Internet calls them heroes. A new wave of hacktivists is changing the way we handle secrets

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Photo-Illustration by Joe Magee for TIME. Swartz: Fred Benenson; Snowden: Guardian / Glenn Greenwald / Laura Poitras / EPA; Manning: Patrick Semansky / AP

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After the Manning leaks, the intelligence community, the State Department and the military tried to remake their procedures to ensure that another leak could not happen. New trip wires were added to detect massive downloading of classified information, monitor military workstations and better compartmentalize secret information. Clearly, more will have to be done. "There is a belief that the total revelation of information is in the public interest," said a White House official, describing the threat. The official noted that the coming changes to classified access in response to Snowden are likely to further limit information sharing, narrowing the potential of a key reform after 2001 meant to prevent further attacks.

"I think that there's a group of people, younger people who are not fighting the war, who are libertarians mostly, who feel like the government is the problem," says Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican on the Armed Services Committee who helped write the laws that govern the NSA surveillance programs. Graham says he wants more internal efforts in the intelligence community to detect such people before they go public and to punish the leakers severely. "It's imperative that we catch him," Graham said of Snowden. "I don't care what we need to do. We need to bring this guy to justice for deterrence sake."

But others who monitor the intelligence world say it will not be so easy. Snowden wasn't a government official; he was a private contractor, the kind of hired help the U.S. intelligence system has come to rely on by the thousands since 9/11. And the punishment of Manning did not dissuade Snowden, after all. If anything, it cleared the path to future celebrity and martyrdom for other, like-minded activists. "It's going to be a challenge to the intelligence community to figure out how to defend against this," says Senator Chambliss. "I don't know that you always can."

In the meantime, the threat of more leaks is likely to grow as young people come of age in the defiant culture of the Internet and new, principled martyrs like Snowden seize the popular imagination. "These backlashes usually do provoke political mobilization and a deepening of commitments," says Gabriella Coleman, a professor at McGill University in Montreal, who is finishing a book on Anonymous. "I kind of feel we are at the dawn of it."

The original version of this story incorrectly identified Aaron Swartz as a co-founder of the website Reddit. In fact, he joined the company about 6 months after its inception.

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