© Edward Snowden
Nearly a decade ago we bore witness to magnificent acts of rebellion and alarm-calling, as dissidents like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden began exposing DC’s global surveillance state and abuses of power. DC acted with rapid malice, cancelling Snowden’s passport in an effort to prevent him from traveling. Marooned in Russia, which he’d been passing through from Hong Kong to Educador, Snowden was immediately tarred by DC and its obedient servants as a traitor. Five years after Snowden’s revelations, the world has only grown more complacent about our existence within the Panopticon, eager to fill our homes with the ever-open ears of Alexa, Google, and the like, and more interested in arguing about the cause célèbre that the television and social media promote. We have learned nothing and sunk ever-deeper into becoming total subjects of the security state. Permanent Record, Snowden’s biography and explanation as to why he threw away a promising career to become an exile, should remind us all of what is truly important, what we should be focusing on besides masks and policing people for wanting to get a haircut.
Permanent Record begins with Snowden’s coming of age, as the future rebel shares how eagerly he took to the brave new world of the internet, a place where one could re-invent themselves on a daily basis and explore as far and wide as their phone bill would permit. But 9/11, which ended the optimism and prosperity of the 1990s and replaced it with fear, vengeance, and skyrocketing gas prices, permanently altered the future development of the internet. The web was already evolving into something else, pushed by commerce and the opportunities afforded by tech; the smart gadgets that so many were eager to play with all needed to constantly report their location, and devices like iphones kept records of where they’d been. New web services like Gmail and social media made it easier to store everything online — for “free”! What we didn’t realize then was that those services were being paid for by information about us. We were the product; the services were merely the bait. In this atmosphere, a young Ed Snowden who was inspired by 9/11 to enter the armed services but prevented from doing so by a training accident began working for the intelligence community, using his savvy for the subject to become a leading member of the new generation of analysts. Snowden notes that after 9/11, DC’s push for rapid expansion meant that it entrusted the most vulnerable parts of of its burgeoning infrastructure to civilians who were in it just for the money, not any idea of service. Although Snowden’s on-paper bosses were Dell or Booz-Allen, in reality he was working for both the CIA and NSA, depending on the year.
Snowden’s work overseas, analyzing China’s own digital security state, made him realize: the Intelligence Community couldn’t possibly know this much about China’s internal surveillance mechanisms without having a similar system itself. Snowden began exploring that possibility, using the stupefying amount of information he had available to him (first as a contractor, then an official member of the service), and tools that he and other technicians had been building over the last few years. When Snowden began to realize the staggering capabilities that he and other tech enthusiasts had unthinkingly established for DC — when he realized he was complicit in turning the open web into the glass cage — his health took a dramatic downturn. He had been living a double life: Snowden the tech helped build the security state, and Ed the user valued his privacy to the point of using Tor for regular browsing. Now, increasingly, Ed couldn’t countenance the realities of the work he’d been doing. At first he tried to rebel by simply spreading the word about the need for protecting privacy, in general, or by giving people the tools and knowledge to bypass surveillance in countries hostile to free expression, like Iranians subjected to the role of the ayatollahs, he eventually decided that the most effective way of fighting back was to reveal what was being built.
The last four years in particular have served up plenty of distractions from the pickle that we’re all in — and when I say “all”, I mean all, for the US internet infrastructure is a lynchpin of the global internet. Everyone’s data is being hoovered up and stored. There has been pushback against the total surveillance state — local governments not permitting the NSA to build server sites, for instance — but not nearly enough. We all seem to have just given up the fight against Google, facebook, and the DC surveillance state. Our grievances now focused on how much money they make rather than how much of our lives they claim to own. Permanent Record is thus a timely, welcome, and surprisingly cleverly-written reminder of the fix we’re in.
No Place to Hide, Glenn Greenwald. The original Snowden story.
Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World, Bruce Schneier
Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror, Michael Hayden.