By Hope Kesselring
Anybody who’s expecting shocking revelations from Edward Snowden’s new book, Permanent Record, is going to be disappointed. However, if you’re interested in spy culture like I am, it is worth a read.
The Department of Justice is suing him for not submitting the manuscript to them, but I’m not sure why other than for profit. Permanent Record is more personal than scandalous, and since the lawsuit, it has become a bestseller. More money for them, I guess.
I got the audio version of Permanent Record for free as part of an Audible promotion. Snowden would call that a hack — or maybe they’ve hacked me? Apparently I traded my data for his memoir.
Anyway, I wasn’t sure about writing this review. I wasn’t sure about the book. But this morning I saw a tweet by Srecko Horvat (@HorvatSrecko) that made me see the value of Permanent Record.
Horvat found a copy of it at the Amsterdam airport and took a photo of it in a chair, stating that “One day soon a new Snowden will be inspired by this book.”
This made me think about all the people I know who seem oblivious to the extent of the surveillance we tolerate. I hope they’ll get bored in waiting areas and read Permanent Record. Maybe I’ve been too judgmental of this particular memoir and its author, I thought, so I decided to write the review.
Toward the beginning of the book, Snowden describes a high school English assignment that he could not do — an essay about himself. He claims to struggle with autobiographical writing to this day due to the nature of his occupational background.
Spying, he states, “begins with a denial of character and ends with a denial of conscience.” I wonder if he’s an unreliable narrator as I listen. I keep listening, though, because his life story is intriguing, especially the pre-911 parts.
Born to parents with security clearances, little Edward is inclined to spying and hacking from an early age. He describes his “first hack” as changing the time on the microwave so his parents won’t make him go to bed.
Hacking is a broad term, he explains. It’s not limited to computer coding. It’s knowing any system better than it knows itself and exploiting its weaknesses. In a way, we are all hackers.
Snowden’s coming of age parallels the internet’s coming of age. His father brings home a Commodore 64 and teaches him how to play games on it. In 1989, he gets a Nintendo, breaks it, and tries to fix it himself.
To young Ed, the World Wide Web is a miracle, even though his big sister kicks him offline to talk on the phone. On the internet, he finds the social outlet he needs. He spends hours online interacting anonymously with other gamers and computer enthusiasts, including a university professor who teaches programming.
Snowden describes the early days of the internet as idyllic. Anonymity afforded a democracy that was not reflected in offline society. He describes the 1990s online as the only successful form of anarchy.
It was civil, too, at least in comparison to the bad behavior we see on social media platforms today. Snowden attributes this to an equality fostered by anonymity. People could just change their identities and move on from things.
With platforms like Facebook, you use your real name and picture. You make yourself vulnerable to your neighbors and to the whole world. You could get passed over for a job because you expressed a bad opinion. You could get hacked.
Because of the commodification of internet data, a power dynamic is created, Snowden explains. He calls this “digital inequality.” We have become victims of data vampires, constantly watched. It’s easy to forget what online used to be.
Snowden spends his teen years in the flourishing hacking community. Teenagers are by nature hackers, he claims. Hacking is anti-authority. Warnings of “This will go down on your permanent record” from authority figures like school principals and government agencies just encourage rebellion in some people.
Nowadays we all have permanent records. Silicon Valley treats us like teenagers. If we’re bad, we get shadowbanned or deplatformed as punishment. Perhaps we should en masse conjure up our inner teens and metaphorically flip the bird at Big Tech.
Teenage Ed hacks the Los Alamos National Laboratory, but they not only don’t notice, they don’t fix the problem for weeks. When they call his family home and find out his age, they tell him to apply for a job with them when he turns 18.
Meanwhile, his parents’ marriage is falling apart. Snowden is growing up in a home and a community where people don’t talk about their jobs. It’s easy to see how this could lead to the compartmentalization of families. Ed retreats further into the anonymity and honesty of the early internet, and his grades suffer. By September of 2001, he is a dropout with a GED, freelancing website designs for money.
The most remarkable part of Snowden’s description of 911 is not his story about being stuck in traffic, trying to leave Fort Meade. It’s his recollection of a phone conversation with his father.
“They bombed the Pentagon,” is the quote. Not “They flew a plane into the Pentagon, too,” but they bombed it. Snowden repeats his father’s quote and does not correct it with the official narrative. I can’t help but feel like this was on purpose, a little gem of truth left glittering but plausibly deniable in the manuscript.
Much of Permanent Record is a detailed and probably more accurate telling of the story made famous by Oliver Stone’s Snowden movie. Ed signs up for the military, gets injured, joins the CIA and contracts for the NSA. He designs surveillance software but says the compartmentalization that’s built into the intelligence community prevents him from truly understanding how damaging it is.
Then one day he finds a document that directly disproves what the intelligence agencies have been feeding us. Ed has an epiphany that bulk data collection is a bad idea. He puts files on SD cards and sneaks them out of a secured area, hidden beneath the colored stickers on a Rubik’s Cube.
Snowden considers sending his documents to WikiLeaks but decides against it because he doesn’t think a document dump is appropriate. He thinks the journalists he’s chosen will take better care of them.
Well, I guess they did because only about 10% were published before the Intercept stopped releasing them. He doesn’t tell us that part, though.
Snowden does make sure to tell us that, although he credits Julian Assange for saving his life, he doesn’t like him and hasn’t spoken to him for years. I wonder why, but all he tells us is that Assange is moody. He has a lot of praise for Sarah Harrison, the WikiLeaks journalist who helped him escape arrest by accompanying him from Hong Kong to Russia, but his goodwill doesn’t seem to extend to Assange, who’s being held in a maximum security prison.
The next-to-last chapter is taken from his girlfriend’s diary. He includes it, he says, so that the reader will understand what his loved ones went through, which includes FBI surveillance and interrogation.
In spite of this, Lindsay Mills forgives him and moves to Russia, where they are married. End of story. I would have liked more details about life in Russia, but maybe that will be included in the next book.
I would recommend Permanent Record to people who aren’t familiar with Snowden’s story or who are interested in his background. I’m glad a lot of people are reading it. His insights on mass surveillance and spy culture are useful in a post-911 world.
Just don’t go into it expecting any stunning reveals.