Permanent Record by Edward Snowden (Book Review) | Ewell Gregoor

Just the other day, a family member enquired as to what I was currently reading. I told them I was reading Edward Snowden’s biography. They were unfamiliar with him. I gave them the crux of the book, and provided some examples of the government programs he exposed. “You’re not one of those conspiracy theorists, are you?”, I was asked. 

“It’s not a conspiracy”, I replied, “It actually happened, it’s documented, and the US Government had to apologise. Snowden is the reason why your messages now come with encryption. He risked his life to ensure yours’ remain as private as possible”. 

Sadly, an overwhelming majority of people probably assume what my family member did, that Snowden’s work represents nothing more than a conspiracy theory. Following his high-profile whistleblowing in 2013, then-President Barack Obama referred to Snowden as “some hacker boy”, dismissing Snowden as if he was just some geeky provocateur. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Snowden is, by all accounts, a patriot. Testament to this he joined the army in the wake of 9/11, determined to protect and serve his country. Snowden also didn’t hack anything. Snowden’s final job, a SharePoint administrator for the United States Intelligence Community (USIC) gave him access to the entire catalogue of USIC programmes. Snowden’s manager approved his idea to collect and centralise all USIC documents to create a daily update of news. It was this centralising of documents that gave Snowden access to the programmes he exposed. He sneaked some SD cards out of an NSA facility, that is not tantamount to hacking.

Another common criticism of Snowden is that he risked the lives of his comrades in the USIC. This can also be dispelled. Snowden’s conditions for giving the information to journalists to report them was that they did not discuss live cases or anything that would risk field operatives. This notion is omnipresent in the book. Whilst recalling the day that he would sneak the SD cards out of the facility, he says, “I won’t tell you how I got them out because I want the NSA to still be standing tomorrow”. 

In the 8 years since the revelations, what world atrocity happened because of Snowden? What deaths can be attributed to Snowden? There are of course none. Should Snowden have caused any deaths or incidents, the NSA would have made sure everyone knew. The only lives Snowden risked were those of himself and his girlfriend. Snowden went out of his way to ensure that he could expose the crimes (yes, they were later declared crimes) of the US intelligence community. 

Another allegation often levelled at Snowden’s character is that he is a crackpot libertarian who doesn’t think we should spy on anyone. Often cited by those likely to defend authoritarianism by frivolously asking, “should we not spy on bad guys?”. This was easily disproved during his appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast, when Snowden explicitly stated that there is a need for intelligence gathering and spying. Moreover, would Snowden have ever had a career in intelligence if he opposed it outright?

We are getting down to the frivolous claims of “having nothing to hide”, at this point. Snowden explores this claim in his book. Where he challenges the reader to imagine their “black slate”, i.e. any Google searches, text messages, emails, photos or anything else done online that might be morally incriminating. Snowden claims that nearly every adult human has a “black slate” of things that could ruin their life, and in an increasingly digitised world, those things are often online. You might think this point is an exaggeration. Surely the NSA can’t access everything you do? They can. The programme XKeyscore, exposed by Snowden, creates a a permanent record (hence the title) of anything and everything you have ever done via any device with an internet connection). In the book Snowden explains that XKeyscore even allows the NSA to watch the history of someone’s computer monitor. They would be able to select a time frame and watch it back like an on-demand programme for every human in the world with a computer or smartphone. “It is that accurate, as someone is typing, you can watch word by word. Like watching a machine autocomplete, only it’s not a machine. It’s a person.” 

By this point, state sycophants are running out of rebuttals. Perhaps, “The state isn’t going to use this against me, they’re only after the bad guys”, can still be argued, however misguided. 
The old adage that power corrupts has and will always be true. We are human, after all. Snowden explains that XKeyscore was used by the NSA employees to spy on their wives, ex-girlfriends, and old school friends. Yes, the programme created to keep you safe from the bogeymen is a tool for jealous and possessive NSA staff to read their wives’ emails. Surely even the biggest cheerleaders of big government will struggle to defend this?

I suppose some could say, “A few insecure guys spying on their wives, nothing to do with me”. Wrong again. Snowden revealed not only the capability of state surveillance, but the culture of the people who undertake it. Snowden stated that XKeyscore would categorise data, storing it separately, one category was digital media (photos). When a more private photo was flagged, whoever intercepted it would shout “I’ve got a nude”, to which everyone would gather around and look. Think long and hard whether you want to live in a world where such behaviour is legal.

This book is a must read for anyone, especially those who have read books like Anna Funder’s Stasiland, Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy, or in general consider themselves anti-totalitarian, anti-communist, anti-fascist, and so forth. The only difference between an East German Stasi team drilling holes in the neighbour’s wall to listen to conversations, recruiting a secret network of spies, and what is happening in the contemporary West in Snowden’s book, is money and technology. The end result is the same. An invasion of privacy tantamount to totalitarianism. It is ironic that the world shivers and displays a collective horror when we consider what happened behind the wall in Germany, yet we think internet surveillance in the West to be normal, or even that it isn’t surveillance at all, but protection. It is as George Orwell said in his seminal Politics and the English Language, “Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable”. To not equally condemn the actions in this book with that of the Stasi, is to throw yourself in with the worst kind of hypocrites. 

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