Review: “Permanent Record” Of The Whistleblower Who ‘Freed’ The Internet

Snowden. Still from the video “NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden: ‘I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things”||Credits: The Guardian

Seven years ago in June 2013, the world was introduced to a young NSA Contractor, through a short video running on the Guardian, who would go on to unveil the transgressions of the most powerful government and warn the world about the lingering dangers of mass surveillance.

“My name is Edward Joseph Snowden. I used to work for the government, but now I work for the public,” writes an unperturbed Snowden in the opening lines of his brazen memoir, Permanent Record, as a laser-focused statement of fact.

The world knows Snowden as the “whistleblower” whose days in Hong Kong in 2013 and escape to Moscow were as dramatic as a Hollywood thriller. Citizenfour, an Academy Award-winning documentary by Laura Poitras, and Snowden, a feature film by Oliver Stone, have already reconstructed those days on the reel. Luke Harding’s book, The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man, is also a good account of the disclosures.

Hence, the challenge before Snowden was to go beyond what had been already said. And Permanent Record does just that. It’s a book with a soul, which is Snowden’s moral righteousness. For me, Permanent Record is the raw, unfettered tale of the moral dilemma surrounding a man who, in his own words, knew too much. A lot more than he should have known, and perhaps it was the curse of this knowledge that compelled him to do what he eventually did.

A huge proponent of civil liberties, it was Snowden’s tryst with the “creative web” in his early childhood, which led him to discover his passion, technology for social good. Angered by the dismal state of student voice at school, and at times, undermined at home, the web became his free and fair companion of growth, one where his age, or identity didn’t matter at all. He vividly describes his early encounters on the internet, and aptly describes how the internet of today is unrecognizable from its former self.

But perhaps the core of all his revelations lied in the unique position of the government and its affairs that he underlines. It is at this juncture that he realized that to defeat this absolute power corrupting the state absolutely, he had to find the ultimate hack, transcending the reach of the law, while relying on the ever-increasing pace of technology.

Permanent Record is this exceptional account of how Snowden finally took that leap of faith, ending up making the choice he made, and finding refuge in the act of serving a cause, far above his own existence. It is a tale of fine decision making, one that relies on years of acquired wisdom and precision that only someone as talented as Snowden could achieve. The 29 chapters demystify, one by one, both the ideologies that guided the then-29-year-old NSA contractor and the lessons he derived from his lived experiences, eventually leading him towards that final act of courage.

But most importantly, it is a book about trust. The trust that Snowden had in the ideals of liberty and freedom that America’s founding fathers had laid in the Constitution, a copy of which he would toss around to tease his co-workers. The trust that he had laid in himself, his capabilities as a planner and decision-maker, and in his belief of doing the right thing. The trust that a range of his supporters showed in both him and his story, one that compelled them to lead a crusade against the state for his existence, albeit in exile! And the trust that his family and the love of his life had put in him, one that comforted him during his most difficult moments, eventually paving way for the ending that his story duly deserved!

It is this power of human connection that I discovered in these lines (from a Kindle notebook full of highlights), that can’t even be attributed to the man himself, but to the one whose love makes life out of exile for him.

“How could we have known that our own lives were about to erupt? That volcano Ed was going to destroy everything? But I remember the guide at Kilauea saying that volcanoes are only destructive in the short term. In the long term, they move the world. They create islands, cool the planet, and enrich the soil. Their lava flows uncontrolled and then cools and hardens. The ash they shoot into the air sprinkles down as minerals, which fertilize the earth and make new life grow.”

If you’re a 22-year-old (or above) like me, you would perhaps be very different from the one we find at the end of Chapter 10, and would be well versed with all the technical transgressions of our respective governments on our digital lives. For us, Snowden’s legacy is indeed like that of this volcano that erupted with his disclosures. Thanks to him, and the other crusaders of a free and fair internet, we now live in a world where a lot of our communication is encrypted, and most of us are acutely aware of the dangers surrounding the ownership of our data.

Yet, every time we tick those boxes carelessly while granting permissions to a myriad of applications, we become complicit. Our systems are still not adept at providing a safety net to those who would go on to blow the whistle, and we definitely have a long way to go when it comes to strengthening the dialogue that Snowden and his peers generated.

The developments post the memoir’s publication are also worth noting and offer a quick glance at the bleak picture!

Shortly after its publication in September 2019, the U.S. Government filed a civil lawsuit contending that publication was “in violation of the non-disclosure agreements he signed with both the CIA and the National Security Agency (NSA)”. They claimed that the release of the book without pre-publication review by the agencies was “in violation of his express obligations.” Snowden’s lawyers had argued that if the author had believed that the government would review his book in good faith, he would have submitted it for review.

Soon after in December, Snowden was told that he is not entitled to the profits from his book and any money made must go to the U.S. Government, a judge had ruled. If this wasn’t enough, the Chinese government too resorted to censuring the publication!

An undeterred Snowden responded to these challenges by claiming, “The government may steal a dollar, but it cannot erase the idea that earned it… I wrote this book for you, and I hope the government’s ruthless desperation to prevent its publication only inspires you to read it — and then gift it to another.”

Thus for me, Snowden remains the Villain we desperately needed and the Hero we perhaps did not deserve!

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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