Review of Permanent Record by Edward Snowden (2019)

My relationship with the internet since 2016 has been a difficult one. That year disheartened me because of the political events that occurred during it. Much of my angst concerned my beliefs about human nature, but my view of the internet had started to sour as well. This newfound suspicion was partly caused by the rise of the Alt Right, but another factor that caused me to change my opinion of this medium was the Cambridge Analytica scandal. While there were other reasons behind my decision to act such as the narcissism inherent to certain SNS networks which can worsen mental health, the abuse women and ethnic minorities receive on them, and the culpability of certain companies in actively collaborating in or indirectly facilitating human rights abuses committed by authoritarian regimes, this event increased my dismay to the point of take more concrete measures. I deleted all my social media and Google accounts, switched to encrypted information exchange services like Protonmail and Signal, purchased a VPN for my phone and began changing all my passwords on a tri-monthly basis. For a period there, I was firmly anti big tech and pro privacy.

I have since backslid on this stance. I am using Facebook and Twitter again. I got back on the former to join a support group whose message board I could only access via that platform. I use Twitter to run the account for the chapter of Amnesty that I am involved in, and use G-Mail for group communications and document storage. I feel somewhat conflicted and a bit hypocritical for doing this. It’s as if I conveniently forgot the abuses that these companies were involved in; abuses that I was vocal in denouncing to those that would listen.

Reading Permanent Record by Edward Snowden was a great reminder of why I initially made that decision, and a catalyst for me to review my cyber security arrangements.

Part memoir and part internet tutorial, the book itself is a fairly easy read with Snowden rarely going above the reader’s head. It traces his story back to his childhood in North Carolina up until his current life in Moscow. While the extent of the NSA’s abuses has been revealed by Snowden in other arenas, he lays out how they carry out mass data harvesting, how they were handed the legal authority to achieve this, how they have used the law to retrospectively legalize their criminality, and who in elected government and the public service were complicit in this. Upon reading this book, the range of information that can be hoovered up by these agencies is either truly impressive or truly terrifying. It’s impressive if one is completely amoral, and a believer in ends always justifying means. It is terrifying if one considers the types of compromising, yet legal, activities one might have have performed online during ones life; activities that could potentially be exploited by unaccountable intelligence and investigation agencies whose history dating back to their founding are chequered with cases of them abusing their power over and over again.

I came away admiring Snowden for more than the principled stance he took in exposing the abuses of the NSA. I admire him for working for such a reactionary and scheming organization like the U.S. intelligence apparatus and not allowing himself to become a product of it. While it’s debatable whether they were already of that political persuasion before their postings or came to be that way as a result of their time working for intelligence, there were a couple of ‘G. Gordon Liddy types’ mentioned. This is a popular stereotype of an American ‘spook’: a right wing libertarian with Bircher leanings. Snowden, while readily admitting that he accepted the US government line about ‘liberating’ oppressed people overseas, never lost track of his sense of values for which I commend him. This is likely the reason he was able to summon up the courage to take the stand he did.

Much of what he wrote about the internet pre-2001 also really struck a chord with me. Being roughly the same age, I am familiar with the carefree and open internet of the 1990’s that he described. What he wrote about big corporations not being omnipresent in most of our time online was a nostalgia trip for me to an era when I mainly browsed smaller and less glossy, but infinitely less homogeneous, websites. It would be 6 years until Mark Zuckerberg started down the road of using the internet to engage in cyber misogyny to salve his hurt from romantic rejection which in turn would lead him to creating Facebook. The revelations of the original 2005 New York Times piece about warrantless wiretapping, one of the first steps towards less privacy, hadn’t occurred, and Snowden’s revelations to Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Ewen McCaskill about the extent of the post September intelligence apparatus were a good 16 years away. Back then, we could express ourselves online without having to be worried that something silly that we said or did would be punitively used against us. Teenagers were able to chat more freely online with strangers without worrying about being preyed on. We played online games without being worried about our metadata being sold to some faceless corporation. We could read major metropolitan newspapers, but also independent political blogs and webzines devoid of clickbait titles or mega-liters of partisan bile. While it’s true that advances in both hardware and software have allowed greater access to information compared to this epoch, internet democracy has devolved into internet corporatization and clandestine surveillance.

Selfies with surgical masks. Protecting you from COVID-19 and having your face uploaded onto a remote database. Photo by cottonbro on

While those passages returned me to a more innocent time, the book also caused me some consternation. I’m sure this was his intention. Yet it did not come from a vindictive place but rather an altruistic one. This is because the unease I felt was triggered when he outlined the semantic games involved in justifying the STELLARWIND program, the capabilities of the XKEYSCORE program, the familiarity of and visibility of the sites that were providing information to the PRISM program, how metadata taken from internet searches, pings from your mobile phone, and the length of your phone calls can reveal more about than you actually know, how the intelligence community and both US political parties gave these programs institutional blessing, and the reality of it’s internationalization when you consider that the bulk of the communication infrastructure that these programs access actually passes through the U.S.A at some point. The paradoxical secrecy and cravenness on display from the actors behind these information gathering schemes is best illustrated in the section when Snowden describes the occasion when the American director of national intelligence, James Clapper was testifying to a U.S Senate Select Committee that the NSA did NOT involve itself in bulk collection of communication data of American citizens. At the same time, the chief technology officer of the CIA, Ira ‘Gus’ Hayes was at an event in New York City called the GigaOM Structure: Data conference outlining the agency’s ambitions and current capabilities to a public forum. Needless to say, his address to the crowd of attendees who paid $40 for the privilege was somewhat different to what Clapper was saying (and being given a pass on by those in power).

Reading through the article about Ira Hunt’s turn at that gathering, it did spark some resentment in me. After the 2016 election, many members of the MSNBC style ‘Resistance’ lefties were sounding grave warnings of an impending worldwide right wing police state that was to descend on us. I will admit that I had my own misgivings when considering who the occupant of the Oval Office was going to be for the next 4 years, and his penchant for vengeance and pettiness. However, what annoys me now is that so many of these suburban liberal types were never as outraged over the fact that these abuses continued into the Obama era. The world has always lived in a surveillance state post 9/11. It’s just that the one that existed from 2008 to 2016 had a nice, smiley, externally intersectional face on it.

I am also bemused by those same resistance types who gleefully swallowed the CIA narrative in the Russiagate and Ukrainegate hearings while refusing to entertain the possibility that a secretive, ruthless and self interested ‘Deep State’ really does exist. The 1954 Guatemala coup d’etat, Operation Mongoose in Cuba, the overthrow of Allende in Chile to even channeling funding to the Liberal Democratic Party in my home of Japan proves as much.

The thing that I am most concerned about is that those we have to blame for this state of affairs are looking at us when we have a shave or clean our teeth. A combination of post 9/11 fear, a narcissistic and commercially convenient individual data collection culture made us sleep walk into the morass we live in today. The sad thing is that we still seem content for this to continue today. As we speak, the British NHS has outsourced a lot of it’s patient data storage to Google via their Deepmind project, yet few bother to look up from their game of Candy Crush to give 1/3 of a shit. People also allow that same company to literally put microphones in their home so they can have a computer they can talk to in order to have it do their thinking for them. Ira Hunt’s presentation about CIA data collection has only been watched on YouTube roughly 10,000 times, while fucking Gangnam Style by Psy is well over 3 trillion views.

How do we solve this? While individual actions matter, ultimately a holistic overhaul of the system of digital information exchange and access is required. If I look at this in a conceited way, I can convince myself that quitting SNS for a while might have convinced others to emulate me. Considered more objectively, it most likely just made me feel self satisfied, and the ramifications of that individual action was nil against big tech’s business model. The sobering reality is that the internet is here to stay. We need to create an entirely new system to operate in rather than defeat the current internet hivemind one boycott at a time. I view this similarly to the fight to save our environment. We can all separate our burnables and recyclables (though the effectiveness of that is up for question), take an eco-bag to the supermarket, ride a bike to work or go vegan as much as we want. However, when 20 of the fossil fuel companies responsible for 1/3 of all carbon emissions are as deeply enmeshed into the world economy as it stands, and that between 19-29% of anthropological greenhouse emissions came from food systems as of 2008, it’s clear that the problem isn’t the bit players causing the problem, it’s how the game is played. Considering the ubiquity of it in our lives and it’s pure reach, the digital world should be tackled in a comparable manner.

I highly recommend Permanent Record for those observing the upcoming US presidential election. It’s a good reminder that while people pick their chosen horse in what is a glorified popularity contest within the battlefield of the culture wars, there are powers beyond our direct vision who are pulling way more strings than the world would like to admit.

Further references:

Edward Snowden’s Interview on the Joe Rogan Experience

Gus Hunt’s Presentation at GigaOM: Data Structure 2013

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