We must destroy data to protect it, aka the MI5 way

James Bond today: Licensed to kill, pulverize hard drives, shred memory chips, and intimidate partners, all for the war on terror

Forget James Bond and Jason Bourne. Put those John le Carré novels back on the bookshelf. Reruns of "24" on Netflix? Meh. There's a much better spy story happening right now, in real life, over in England.

Yes, this story involves our nominee for Spook of the Year, Edward Snowden, but only tangentially. It appears that Her Majesty's Secret Service is none too pleased at the revelations coming out of the offices of the Guardian and has been taking measures to quash them.

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Earlier this week, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger posted a somewhat startling report about visits from bureaucrats at Whitehall. They wanted -- nay, demanded -- the Guardian hand over everything it had obtained from Edward Snowden. And if the Guardian didn't, well, there would be consequences.

In England, the government can stop a newspaper from publishing a story; it's called prior restraint. That's not legal here -- yet -- thanks to the First Amendment and the Supreme Court's 1971 ruling on the Pentagon Papers.

Rusbridger carefully explained that a) these were not the only copies of this data, and b) the Guardian would continue to report on the revelations from other locations, regardless of what happened to this data. No matter -- one spook told him: "You've had your fun. Now we want the stuff back."

Rusbridger had a better idea. How about if the Guardian destroyed all of the data while MI5 watches? That's what they did, in the basement of the Guardian building, last month. Rusbridger's other options: Hand over the data, allowing the spooks to figure out which of his staff had seen the documents (and potentially hassle them); or do nothing, get sued by the British government, and have a court order the Guardian to halt all of its reporting on the Snowden story.

Hands-on law enforcement

Yesterday, the Guardian's Julian Border described what he calls "one of the stranger episodes in the history of digital age journalism." He wrote:

On Saturday 20 July, in a deserted basement of the Guardian's King's Cross offices, a senior editor and a Guardian computer expert used angle grinders and other tools to pulverise the hard drives and memory chips on which the encrypted files had been stored.

As they worked they were watched by technicians from Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) who took notes and photographs, but who left empty-handed....

The intelligence men stood over Johnson and Blishen as they went to work on the hard drives and memory chips with angle grinders and drills, pointing out the critical points on circuit boards to attack. They took pictures as the debris was swept up but took nothing away.

It was a unique encounter in the long and uneasy relationship between the press and the intelligence agencies, and a highly unusual, very physical, compromise between the demands of national security and free expression.

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