Book report #28 (2020)

Permanent Record, by Edward Snowden. Pub 2019

This was the last of the vacation reads – a gift from my sister at Christmas last year, and long overdue to read. I’ve stayed up late a few nights this week with this one.

Edward Snowden needs no introduction as the whistleblower of the US NSA mass surveillance program. In this book, he tells his life story, which provides context to his ultimate actions and presents him fairly and accurately as an ordinary guy in extraordinary circumstances. His upbringing was indeed pretty ordinary – government employee parents, military ancestors (back to the Mayflower, even), as American as the flag. His career seems to have also been fairly ordinary, in the sense that there were many people of his generation (millennials) with geeky computer skills that moved rapidly up the ranks of the Intelligence Community post 9/11. What is extraordinary about him is his integrity. He was not the only one who saw and knew what was happening – how government systems were being used and abused in totalitarian attempts at control of information. But he was the only one who chose to do anything about it.

Snowden does a masterful job of making the complex systems understandable, both the computer systems and the government institutions. More significantly, by putting himself in the very uncomfortable position front and centre in this story, he makes this a story about people, not a report about an incident. He puts himself out there, with all his flaws and vulnerability (as well as his considerable charm and wit), to tell not just what happened, but how and why, and what the considerable cost has been to him and those he loves. The parts that are about his family and loved ones, especially his girlfriend, are sweet and romantic and, at the climax of the story, heartbreaking.

To me, his story teaches us the importance of vigilance, institutional accountability, and individual responsibility. Vigilance in that we cannot expect that this type of abuse of power – the ongoing use of fear as an inducement to do bad – won’t happen again. It won’t look the same again, so we need to learn to watch for the signs of it. Institutional accountability in that we must have counterbalances to any powerful system that asks not just what but why or what if, and is willing and able to accept some level of risk and recognize that the needs of the few can be met along with the needs of the many. Individual responsibility in that we need to be more skeptical of things that are easy or free, and do the sometimes-inconvenient-but-really-not-that-hard things that can protect us (i.e. encrypt your data, maintain your passwords, and think twice before sharing online).

Snowden’s story is ultimately a cautionary tale about the dangers of blind faith in systems, both computer and government. It’s also a hugely inspiring story about how one person can make a difference, and the significant sacrifices that are sometimes necessary in order to be heard and to make that difference.

A few significant bits/quotes:

  • When he was being reviewed for top secret clearance, he had the opportunity to erase from the internet his past comments – idiotic things he’d said online when he was a teenager or young adult that, in hindsight, he knew were hurtful or hateful or just plain wrong. As a computer wizard of the early aughts, it would have been easy for him. He decided to leave the comments in place, saying:
    • “It would have served only to reinforce some of the most corrosive precepts of online life: that nobody is ever allowed to make a mistake, and anybody who does make a mistake must answer for it forever.” This is one of the things that galls me about modern politics – that someone with good ideas who wants to contribute now is so easily mobbed and vilified for some stupid thing they said earlier; that no one has permission to grow.”
  • “…fear was the true terrorism, perpetrated by a political system that was increasingly willing to use practically any justification to authorize the use of force…The politics of terror became more powerful than the terror itself.” And while all of this may have been initiated in the panic following 9/11 under W, President Obama is just as complicit if not more for rebranding and recertifying the programs so they could continue. Despite Snowden’s revelations and the subsequent investigations, the programs have continued likely to the present day, with bipartisan support and very little chance of change.
  • Snowden puts a lot of emphasis on privacy and the individual’s need to assert their right to it. It is by not doing that that governments and corporations are able to trespass and snoop, like burglar entering an open window – citizens are responsible for making a reasonable effort to keep them out. Quote: “Each of us has our own idea of what it is. ‘Privacy’ means something to everyone. There is no one to whom it means nothing…To refuse to claim your privacy is actually to cede it…”

It’s fair to say that I really enjoyed this book. Even though the main story of Snowden the Whistleblower is fairly well known, the overall story of Edward Snowden – citizen, patriot, friend, man – is also worth knowing.

Fate: I’m keeping this one, and will likely loan it out but not want to part with it.

3 – a book published in 2019
6 – an author’s debut book
22 – a memoir, journal, or book of letters
24 – an author whom I’ve never read
26 – a book received as a gift

Afterword: subsequent to reading this book, I watched the documentary CitizenFour, which I also highly recommend. It was glad I read the book first, as it allowed me to focus on the people in the film, and understand (and sympathize with) the characters because I already understood the complexities of the cyber-stuff. A relevant revelation in the film is the involvement of one Nancy Pelosi in the ongoing programs, including continued defence of them to this day.

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