Edward Snowden, Permanent Record (Macmillan, 2019)

THE first, and most important, point to make about Edward Snowden is that he is not Julian Assange. Snowden is a whistleblower in the classic sense who identified illegality, wrestled with his conscience, and then took the evidence of wrongdoing to the press. As he puts it, he left government and started working for the public; taking on the whole might of the American security state in the process.

In 2013 Snowden alerted the world to the fact that his ultimate employers, the National Security Agency (NSA), had developed the global capability to capture and store in perpetuity a record of every electronic communication. The official term is bulk collection, but Snowden understandably favours mass surveillance. While the US government may get away with virtually anything regarding other countries, such spying is unconstitutional domestically. It is justified by the security culture, the so-called war on terror, that has developed since the 9/11 attacks; and egged on by increasingly prevalent nationalist populism. As Snowden argues, politically motivated crime created a counter crusade in the supposed name of freedom.

He grew up with an Internet that was still truly democratic – and when Americans could justifiably say ‘it’s a free country’. His father, employed by the Coastguard, gave him early lessons in electronics and much of his education was online and self-taught. Nevertheless, he is perceptive about the dangers of such a narrow introduction to life. He writes about the certainties of programming, and the arrogance and depersonalisation derived from control of machines.

His career followed a predictable trajectory from teenage hacker (nothing short of ambitious, he hacked into the Los Alamos National Laboratory database and then told them they had a security problem) to website designer and eventually to work, directly and indirectly, for national security. Relatively swiftly he rose through the ranks to systems administrator, in effect an electronic archivist with considerable powers of oversight. One of his tasks was to devise a deduplication program that minimised the volume of backed-up documents in the NSA system.

Snowden is from a very conventional family of American patriots, but the nature of his work gradually alerted him to the fact that his government, and employer, was behaving in anti-democratic ways usually associated with its enemies. Furthermore, laws to counter surveillance and property theft were totally outdated and dysfunctional. The politics of terror had succeeded in more ways than one in diminishing liberty.

The idea of the product of mass surveillance being read in its entirety may be fanciful, but that is not the point. The intelligence community is primarily interested in metadata, the tags and indicators that give away patterns of behaviour. Once the surveillors know who is talking to and meeting whom, they can dig deeper into an eternal archive. And not only governments do this: commerce is logging our behaviour constantly with a view to targeted advertising. Anyone who uses the Internet is a potential subject of some level of observation and profile building.

The Arab Spring of 2011, when he was 29, was one of the influences that awoke Snowden’s conscience. His knowledge of the activities of the NSA led him to the belief that it had consistently lied to Congress; that the intelligence community now believed itself to be above the law; and that it had, in a memorable phrase, ‘hacked the Constitution’. This had been encouraged by chronic failure of the legislative and judicial arms of government.

Duty told him that he must blow the whistle in the hope of reform. He was at the time based in Hawaii and faced what appeared to be insurmountable problems in collecting the evidence he needed while evading the NSA’s internal security. Acquisition was assisted by a popular system (Heartbeat) he had devised to disseminate information to colleagues. Temporary storage was enabled by old stand-alone computers; and data smuggling was helped by minute SD cards. As extra insurance he used his Rubik cube to distract the guards.

His revelations about mass surveillance made to the press at a Hong Kong rendezvous meant the end of his old life. As a teenager wedded to the virtual world he used to complain that being booted off the computer and Internet at home was exile. Now he faced it in reality. Trying to reach Ecuador, he was stranded in Moscow when his passport was revoked and spent over a month at the airport before being granted asylum. Joined by his wife he now lives in ironic circumstances, active in freedom of information issues but sheltered by a country that rigorously suppresses political and press freedoms.

Snowden’s courageous conduct woke up those whose misplaced trust and complacency put them in denial about Orwellian surveillance. In his view, there is ‘no natural alliance between technology and government’ and the key to privacy is encryption. And he leaves the encouraging thought that power within information technology often lies with relatively junior staff rather than high-level enforcers.

But the lesson of this book is that if you want to send confidential messages use snail mail. Spies no longer bother to steam open envelopes.