Permanent Record by Edward Snowden


This is not a proper book review. Just some thoughts and notes on topics in the book that I found interesting.

Given that I’m somewhat of a privacy enthusiast, I’m not sure why I didn’t read this sooner. It was published on September 17 (Constitution Day), 2019 and I read it this year. Some might say skip the first half of the book or so to get to the whistleblowing, but I enjoyed the whole thing. We’re close in age that I could relate to his recounting of the early days of the internet, dial-up, and the struggle of blowing into game cartridges.

Hero or traitor? Assuming the story is legit, I’d say hero. He gave up his life to inform the people about global mass surveillance programs. He could have easily gone along to get along like his peers in the IC and had a very comfortable life, but he didn’t. One thing’s for sure that wouldn’t change if he’s found to be an actor, is I consider him to be an expert or authority when it comes to privacy and security.

One of the early themes in the book is the ephemeral nature of growing up in that time period (80s/90s). That generation didn’t have nearly every step they took or word they said digitized and recorded on some cloud. This together with the anonymizing features of the early internet meant you could make mistakes, have bad opinions and be able to learn from them and move on without this threat that those events could be used against you sometime in the future. This certainly applies to generations prior as well, but this generation is notably one of the last to have that characteristic.

Chapter 16 goes into the NSA’s program of unfettered mass surveillance. Post 9/11, there would be a shift from targeted surveillance to bulk collection of everyone’s communications. Stored forever; to be called upon when needed with the simplicity of a Google search. Snowden laments about there being no Hippocratic Oath for technology. I often feel the same. If the question of “should we” came up as often as “can we”, maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess. I look at things like controlling robotic arms with your thoughts and think it’s great for paralyzed patients. But I’m expecting the inevitable, “what else could we do now that we can read people’s thoughts?” Some might be creeped out by it, and others just need to be shown how convenient it would be to order from Amazon and DoorDash with a brain-computer interface.

Chapter 18 hits us with the, now classic, line: “saying that you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different from saying you don’t care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say.” People actually care about privacy though. It’s why we put curtains on our windows, for instance. When people say they don’t care, I think they either just mean it in the context of the internet, where privacy violations are mostly invisible or they don’t care because they got some convenience in return and are willingly making that trade-off. If you lived in a glass house, you’d feel the privacy violation pretty damn quick and would probably care then given that you’re not gaining any benefit from that lack of privacy.

Chapter 20 mentions TURBINE, one of the NSA’s tools which delivers malware back to you in response to the requested website. More on this here.

Constitution Day. Make that a holiday.

Chapter 22 is about deciding how he would execute his disclosures: self-publish, WikiLeaks, legacy media, or direct to journalists. One event that aided his decision was a talk given by Ira “Gus” Hunt, CIA CTO, in March 2013. There were journalists in the crowd and some of the things Hunt uttered should have been covered more extensively than they were. Statements like “You are aware of the fact that somebody can know where you are at all times, because you carry a mobile device, even if that mobile device is turned off.” and “…we fundamentally try to collect everything and hang on to it forever.” Because this admission hardly made a wave, Snowden decided he had to not only hand over some documents to journalists and work with them to understand and interpret them adequately, but also train them on how to do their reporting accurately and safely. You can watch that talk here. There’s also a transcript.

Chapter 25 mentions an Indonesian boy. His father had become a target and thus became one of the bystanders being watched as his father was being watched. While the father was on the computer, the boy was on his lap. Snowden freaked out as the boy looked directly into the computer’s camera as if he was looking right back at him. This is why we cover any built-in cameras.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in privacy and the catalyst that sparked the privacy debate during the past decade. For those wondering why they should care about it when the people around them don’t and what the risks are for remaining apathetic towards privacy.

As the final chapter mentions, you are now in the system for reading this book or reading about this book. Welcome to the system.

If you want to buy the book thinking it’s a way to support Snowden, note that the profits of the book go to the US government. So here’s an archive link. If you still want to buy it for your bookcase because you prefer a tangible book like I do, I suggest your local bookstore or Bookshop.