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9 October 2019updated 12 Sep 2021 10:04am

Permanent Record: Edward Snowden spies on the spies

The whistle-blower’s memoir is insightful, with a nice line in tech-inflected imagery.

By Steven Poole

Don’t underestimate the IT guy. Edward Snowden – who in 2013 told the world about the United States’s illegal mass-surveillance of its citizens’ communications – was not a computer genius exfiltrating secrets from the bowels of the National Security Agency (NSA) and CIA through brilliant technical subterfuge. Although he enjoys referring to himself as a “spy”, he was really just a lowly systems administrator for the spies’ computers. But because his sysadmin roles required him to manage documents, he had the top security clearance needed to read any document in the whole system. Then he just methodically copied them on to SD cards and walked out past the guards, day after day, fiddling with his Rubik’s Cube.

It’s halfway through Snowden’s memoir, though, before any secrets get stolen. The first half details his childhood as the son of two government workers, and his blossoming passion for computers. “What I love and believe in the most is connection, human connection,” he writes, before adding, as only an übergeek would, “and the technologies by which that is achieved.” An early epiphany comes when his father, a gruff electronics engineer for the Coast Guard, brings home a Commodore 64 home computer. Before long, young Snowden is upgrading to a PC and haunting the bulletin boards of the early internet on a dial-up connection. At one point he politely informs the national nuclear-research facility at Los Alamos that he has managed to hack their website. They call back and offer him a job, not realising he’s still a schoolboy.

By this stage, however, schoolboy Snowden has, like Holden Caulfield, decided that school is full of phonies, “an illegitimate system”. He prefers to read cyberpunk fiction and hang out online until he graduates. Then 9/11 strikes, and he joins the army. Invalided out after fracturing his legs, he decides he can best serve his country with his computer skills, and so begins his career as a systems guy for the spies, first the CIA and then the NSA. He is notionally employed by corporations such as BAE Systems or Dell, but physically and informationally he is positioned in the belly of the deep-state beast.

Perhaps the most interesting and heartfelt analysis of the whole book, before we even get to the whistle-blowing, is Snowden’s bureaucratic complaint about the absurd results of outsourcing crucial government operations to corporate enterprise. He and his fellow private contractors earn more money and do cooler stuff than the “govies”, actual public employees, many of whom are former field agents (ie, real spies) now pastured out to a help-desk in a corridor. Naturally, the intelligence officials who hire the contractors end up waltzing through the revolving door to become handsomely paid executives at the same firms. “Contracting functions as governmentally assisted corruption,” Snowden concludes; it is “America’s most legal and convenient method of transferring public money to the private purse”. Evidently the grift works the same way everywhere.

Being a curious fellow, Snowden uses his security clearance to snoop around in topics that interest him. “In case you were wondering,” he writes drily, “Yes, man really did land on the moon. Climate change is real. Chemtrails are not a thing.” (“Chemtrails” are what conspiracy theorists, including the author Naomi Wolf, call the contrails of jet planes: rather than being harmless water vapour, they think they are deliberate sprays of noxious chemicals into the atmosphere, for reasons unclear.) And then, after marvelling at evidence of China’s programme of mass electronic surveillance of its citizens, he starts wondering if the US is doing the same thing.

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Thanks to him, we now know it was, and no doubt still is, under programs codenamed Stellarwind (the name for the “bulk collection” of data), Prism (describing how the NSA could reach into the servers of Google, Apple and the rest, and extract whatever it wanted without a warrant), and Turbulence, through which the NSA can intercept your web traffic and which Snowden says install spyware on your computer. By the time Snowden moves to a new post in Hawaii for health reasons, he has decided he is going to make it all public.

There follows a deliciously tense sequence describing in cinematic detail how he copied and extracted the files, waiting anxiously for the progress bars to finish during his night-shifts, and meanwhile made plans to abandon his life and his country. Then we hop to his first meeting in Hong Kong with the journalists Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald and Ewan MacAskill, his sudden worldwide fame after the first reports on his leaks are printed in the Washington Post and the Guardian, and his attempt to fly to asylum in Ecuador. That, of course, got only as far as Russia, where he lives to this day.

Why did he do it? Snowden argues strongly for his principles, prime among which is privacy, which he sees as indivisible from liberty itself. “Ultimately, saying that you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide,” he writes, “is no different from saying you don’t care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say.” He describes the horror he felt, knowing what he knew but we didn’t yet, when he was first shown an internet-enabled “smart fridge” in an electrical showroom: “I was convinced the only reason that thing was internet-equipped was so that it could report back to its manufacturer about its owner’s usage and about any other household data that was obtainable.” As Amazon and other companies launch more and more “smart home” devices, this is truer and more threatening than ever.

If there’s one thing that Snowden wants his readers to learn, it’s that they do not have to helplessly participate in their own surveillance. He recommends, at the very least, that we use encrypted communications: the chat app Signal, the anonymous Tor web browser. He points out that the “cloud” – the fashionable term for storing our documents and email on corporate servers run by Google etc – is really a reassertion of centralised control: “A regression to the old main-frame architecture of computing’s earliest history, where many users all depended upon a single powerful central core that could only be maintained by an elite cadre of professionals.”

Permanent Record – the title refers to the data exhaust of our modern lives, stored indefinitely by governments and corporations – is a thoughtful and elegantly written book, with a nice line in tech-inflected imagery. (On the morning of 9/11, Snowden recalls, he was driving under “a beautiful Microsoft-blue sky”.) Snowden himself is not part of the global wave of anarcho-nationalism exemplified by figures such as Julian Assange, Donald Trump, Steve Bannon and Dominic Cummings, but he does resemble them to the extent that he combines a declared fealty to “democracy” with fantasising about a liberating freedom from any laws at all. “To this day,” he remarks, “I consider the 1990s online to have been the most pleasant and successful anarchy I’ve ever experienced.” If only, you suspect he wishes, the world could be that way too.

Questions have long been raised – and not only by the predictably furious CIA and NSA leadership – about Snowden’s exact relationship with the Russian security services during his six-year “exile” there. Unarguably his presence has been a PR coup for Vladimir Putin, whose name is not mentioned in the book. Nor does Snowden address the fact – at least, according to the US director of national intelligence in 2014 – that many of the secret files he copied related not to domestic surveillance at all but to America’s global military operations. Instead, he says he rejected a frank attempt at recruitment by Russia’s security agency, the FSB, on his initial arrival in the country, and that’s the last we hear of spies.

For the story’s final chapter, instead, Snowden paints a sweetly dull picture of a normal Muscovite life: reading stuff on the internet, going to Burger King, and occasionally taking up a generous offer of tickets at the Bolshoi. He married his girlfriend there and makes a handsome living giving talks by video-conference to audiences all over the world. Seemingly the only downside is that he is, he mentions casually, obliged to pirate the video games he wants to play because he “can no longer use credit cards”. Even an ethical hacker, it seems, has to be a little bit unethical sometimes. 

Steven Poole’s latest book is “A Word for Every Day of the Year” (Quercus)

Permanent Record
Edward Snowden
Macmillan, 352pp, £20

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This article appears in the 09 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The fantasy of global Britain