BOOK REVIEW: Permanent Record by Edward Snowden

Metropolitan Books, New York. Hard cover, 329 pp, US$30

There is a breathtaking point in this book when the then-29-year-old Edward Snowden, a systems engineer contracted to the United States National Security Agency, sits down in front of his computer in Fort Meade, Maryland, and keys in an NSA program called XKEYSCORE and begins to make his way through a shared targeting folder holding the history of an engineer in Indonesia, an academic who for reasons that were unclear had attracted the attention of the astonishing capabilities of the US surveillance network 16,329 km away.

There, on Snowden’s computer screen, was the engineer in real-time, with a toddler in diapers on his lap, trying to read his screen. As Snowden watched, the father attempted to hold his squirming child tighter as he sought to read something. “Suddenly the boy straightened up and, with his dark crescent eyes, looked directly into the computer’s camera – I couldn’t escape the feeling that he was looking directly at me. Suddenly I realized I had been holding my breath. I shut the session, got up from the computer, and left the office for the bathroom in the hall, head down, headphones still on with the cord trailing.”

By this time Snowden, who had made a successful pathway up through the ranks of the CIA and then the NSA, realized that the capabilities of XKEYSCORE gave him and other top spies at the NSA the ability to look into the eyes of almost everybody who ever sat in front of a computer screen, or used a smartphone, anywhere on earth, including in his own country. Other programs, including PRISM, enabled the NSA to routinely collect data from Microsoft, Yahoo!, Google, Facebook Paltalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL and Apple including email, photos, video and audio chats, web-browsing content, search engine queries, and all other data stored on their clouds, transforming the companies into witting conspirators.”

Upstream collection, meanwhile, was arguably even more invasive. It enabled the routine capture of data directly from private-sector Internet infrastructure -- the switches, and routers that shunt Internet traffic worldwide, via the satellites in orbit and the high capacity fiber-optic cables that run under the ocean.

This is a war that, as Snowden writes, began with the falling World Trade Towers on September 11, 2001. The fall of the towers and the attack on the Pentagon took about 3,000 lives. The response by George W Bush, which has continued over two more presidencies and 19 years, has taken roughly a million across the globe, blighted American society, and resulted in the building of this electronic surveillance juggernaut. And Barack Obama, he of the Harvard degree in constitutional law, didn’t slow it down whatsoever.

Thus it is possible to collect data from places you never thought of – from your smart refrigerator, your smartphone, your smart jewelry such as rings, wristbands, watches and pins, your FitBit, your Garmin Forerunner 735XT, the EKG in your doctor’s office. These all give off electronic tags, metadata that can be assembled by snooping government officials.

In short, the US government had the capability to know every single thing about you – what you eat, who your friends are, how much you exercise, how much porn you watch, and watch you while you watch it. And it had the capability, while you were sitting there—as I am now, typing this review into this laptop – to look you in the eye through your camera.

This is the story of how Edward Snowden grew from a typical computer nerd into arguably the world’s most wanted human being. His story, of how he compiled massive amounts of material, stole it by hiding it in microdots on a Rubik’s Cube and got it out, has been told across the world – of his escape through Hong Kong, where he passed on his information to reporters, and how he is now stranded in Moscow. He is unable to go in any direction without being arrested. In one infamous case, the US in 2013 forced down the plane of the Bolivian President Evo Morales as it left Russia from a conference on the belief Sowden might be on it.

The minute detail of how the US goes about collecting all of this information on you and me, and what it does with it, and how easy it is to look at that engineer and his child in Indonesia is frightening and it is laid out in this book. As Snowden writes, if you are reading this review online, it is possible that someone, in a gigantic structure under a pineapple field in Hawaii, or other facilities elsewhere, can follow you as you read, can, in fact, watch you read.

Supposedly, as a result of Snowden’s revelations, laws were passed in the US Congress to prevent this kind of surveillance on American citizens. Google and Facebook are said to have taken a series of steps to protect and encrypt user data. Apple has publicly refused to cooperate with federal authorities over the decryption of the phones of people involved in terrorist attacks. The NSA has been forced to end the bulk collection of the phone records of Americans.

But similar laws were passed in the wake of similar revelations in the past, and the CIA, the NSA, and a long list of other agencies figured out ways around those laws to continue surveillance. It is hard to believe they aren’t continuing to do it. For instance, back in 2013, the NSA began to build a gigantic data facility in Bluffdale, Utah, out there where nobody ever goes and looks around, north of Salt Lake City, where the natives in any case largely worship the government and don’t ask many questions.

That facility  was projected to contain four 25,000 square-foot halls filled with servers that, as Snowden writes, “could hold an immense amount of data, basically a rolling history of the entire planet’s pattern of life, insofar as life can be understood through the connections of payments to people, people to phones, phones to calls, calls to networks, and the synoptic array of Internet activity moving along those networks’ lines.”

You’d think the exposure of the vast, systematic surveillance of every human being on earth with a connection to the internet would have put a stop to that facility. It didn’t. it was completed a year ago in May 2019, at a cost of US$1.9 billion.  It is known as the “Intelligence Community Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative Data Center” and is designed to store data estimated to be on the order of exabytes or larger. One exabyte is one quintillion bytes, or 1,000 petabytes, which equals 1 million terabytes, which equals 1 billion gigabytes. What do you think the National Security Agency is going to be doing with all that capacity? You think Snowden stopped anything?

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States is one of the most important of the Bill of Rights, the most important document ever written for the protection of human rights. It states that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

This is a very human book, the tale of how his life was transformed by what he knew, an intense book about Snowden’s family, his upbringing, and his principles that eventually got him to set out to attempt to wreck this giant system. Despite the human side of the book, the extent to which the 4th Amendment has been violated is everything the book is about.

As he writes, “America’s fundamental laws exist to make the job of law enforcement not easier but harder. This isn’t a bug, it is a core feature of democracy. In the American system, law enforcement is expected to protect citizens from one another. In turn, the courts are expected to restrain that power when it is abused, and to provide redresses against the only members of society with the authority to detain, arrest, and use force – including lethal force. Among the most important of these restraints are the prohibitions against law enforcement surveilling private citizens on their property and taking possessions of their private recordings without warrants.”

The extent to which the 4th Amendment is violated is breathtaking.  While that amendment is theoretically a protection for American citizens, the natural laws of human rights should extend it to everyone on the globe. Nonetheless, it is hard to believe Snowden, as events push him further into obscurity, can have had much of an impact. 

It is unfortunate. If this were a just world, based on what Snowden laid bare, the Presidential Medal of Freedom that Donald Trump awarded to the arch-conservative bigot Rush Limbaugh would be stripped from his fat neck and awarded to Edward Snowden, and Snowden would be brought back to the United States to a hero’s welcome.