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UK authorities forget how computers work, smash a MacBook Pro to stop Snowden leaks

Heard of email? How about the cloud? Or file copying? Yes? Because apparently top-level authorities in the United Kingdom haven’t – or at least they don’t get how it all works.

In what some might call a stunning misunderstanding about computers and the Internet, government authorities in the U.K. reportedly smashed a MacBook Pro owned by the Guardian in an attempt to destroy top-secret NSA documents provided to the newspaper by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

This revelation comes via Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, who has overseen the publication’s increasing list of scoops derived from the documents Snowden leaked to Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald. Rusbridger says it all started when “shadowy” figures from Whitehall (the name for the center of the U.K. government) demanded that he turn over the Snowden documents, or destroy them. Rusbridger explained “the nature of international collaborations and the way in which, these days, media organizations could take advantage of the most permissive legal environments,” he writes.

“Bluntly, we did not have to do our reporting from London. Already most of the NSA stories were being reported and edited out of New York. And had it occurred to him that Greenwald lived in Brazil?”

None of this convinced the government authorities, apparently, as they proceeded to deploy two “security experts,” who visited the Guardian’s London headquarters, and smashed apart a MacBook Pro in a futile attempt to destroy the documents.

As Rusbrudger tells it:

“And so one of the more bizarre moments in the Guardian’s long history occurred – with two GCHQ security experts overseeing the destruction of hard drives in the Guardian’s basement just to make sure there was nothing in the mangled bits of metal which could possibly be of any interest to passing Chinese agents. “We can call off the black helicopters,” joked one as we swept up the remains of a MacBook Pro.

“Whitehall was satisfied, but it felt like a peculiarly pointless piece of symbolism that understood nothing about the digital age.”

Of course, the Guardian’s reporting on the NSA documents will continue. “We just won’t do it in London,” writes Rusbridger.

News of the U.K.’s attempts to destroy the documents follows detainment by British authorities of Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, who was held for nine hours at London’s Heathrow airport as despite an authorized grant through U.K. anti-terrorism laws for him to head back to the couple’s home in Brazil. Miranda was released without charges, but not before his electronics, including laptop, USB drives, cell phone, and game console, were seized by agents.

Among the documents leaked by Snowden is information pertaining to the U.K.’s surveillance efforts. Following the detainment of Miranda, Greenwald, who presumably has multiple copies of the document trove, vowed to continue with “aggressive” reporting on the revelations held within.

Update: The Guardian has fleshed out a full explanation as to why U.K. government security experts went to town on a MacBook Pro and USB thumb drives with “an angle grinder.” Long story short, the hard drive destruction was the lesser option of multiple evils, according to Rusbridger, and everyone involved was “well aware that other copies existed outside the U.K. and that the reporting on the reach of state surveillance in the 21st century would continue.”