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!