Privacy or security?

A review of Permanent Record by Edward Snowden

Spying is a timeless human condition as competitors scramble for resources. A spy is often employed with monetary reward by the government, to secretly obtain political and military information on an enemy with the intention of corrupting, criminalizing and catching out. Yet, what happens if the government is keeping tab on its own people in the name of national security? Is spying, then necessary or still bad? Edward Snowden’s Permanent Record is a powerful reminder of the delicate balance between emergency and liberty being overturned and how the latter must trump the former in a democracy. What sets the post-911 spy society apart from the old politics of Cold War is the proliferation of technology and social media, which make the surveillance so effortless with codes and clicks. The quality and quantity of information are so diverse and shocking that prompted Snowden to be the whistle blower. The effects that violence has on the informer are comparable to the impact it has on those being spied on; it can have adverse impacts on their relationships, their ideals (both personal and political), and their ability to trust. The mass surveillance archives released by Snowden raise the question of what to keep secrets and how to maintain privacy. Even he has to grapple with what to be released to the public and which should never be. The art of balancing between protecting the privacy of his loved ones and not disclosing legitimate government confidence presents us this masterful autobiography and testimony written in exile.

Disappointment in the betrayal of public interest is central to Snowden’s motivation to be the whistle blower. It does not help that this happens in a country which is arguably the biggest champion for civil liberty and human rights. The change from ‘targeted surveillance of individuals to mass surveillance of entire populations’ is made ‘technologically feasible’ as the US becomes capable of collecting, storing and searching the ‘world’s digital communications’ at its own will (p. 1). This rude awakening was associated with the post-911 guilt of letting America down and thus the resolve to never allow history to repeat. The repercussions of the ‘war on terror’ beg us to ask: Are lives damaged justified for lives lost, and is intelligence created merely as a ‘pretext for war’ (p. 6)? The availability of data, coupled with cloud technology and the ubiquity of the internet, have constructed unparalleled connection and surveillance capitalism. Whether we are cognizant, ‘our attention, our activities, our location, our desires’ are being monitored and transacted (p. 4). What infuriates Snowden is that we have totally no say in this process at all. Not only are we not consulted, we are deliberately kept in the dark. This lack of transparency and accountability is intolerable in a free society where people vote the government in to safeguard their civil liberty and choice, rather than restraining and empowering the government to take power away from its people.

We are (un)fortunate to be made aware of the surveillance systems due to the personal ‘archive’ of top secret documents created by Snowden, when he was working for Booze Allen Hamilton, a leading defence and intelligence contractor (p. 277). When working with the NSA in Hawaii, he understood how to perform ‘the kind of deep interagency searches that the head of most agencies could only dream of’ (p. 221). The system, called Heartbeat allows him to copy the NSA data gathering, sorting and storage programmes that were released to the public. The details give birth to the documentary, ‘the Citizen Fourth’, that won an Oscar. According to Snowden, the media is the ‘de facto fourth branch of government’ (p. 239). The Guardian and The Washington Post published phone records of 120 million Verizon subscribers and exposed PRISM, a surveillance program that collected email, voice, text and video chats of users of communications tools created by technology companies like Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Apple. In the age of the internet, whose privacy is maintained and who is responsible for breaching it? Snowden was amongst the culpable for engineering systems infrastructure that ‘would keep a permanent record of everyone’s life’ (p. 3). To illustrate the level of infiltration, Xkeyscore can search ‘nearly everything a user does on the Internet’, as the user inputs address, telephone number, and IP number. The recent history of online activity, recordings of online sessions, the screen, the desktop, emails, the browser history and social media postings are all a click away (p. 279). Just imagine everything that you do on your computer, tablet and handphone is never secure and private. The government and corporations not only have access to them, but can do whatever they want to the data with impunity.

How did we come here? When the Internet was much more anonymous in the 1990s, Snowden found ‘the most pleasant and successful anarchy I’ve ever experienced’ (p. 44). The online identity needed not to be associated with the offline legal identity. The Web was his ‘jungle gym, treehouse, fortress, and classroom without walls’ (p. 42). The peace was shattered in the new century, which was ‘the beginning of surveillance capitalism, and the end of the Internet as I knew it’ (p. 5). To Snowden, the internet became as ‘unrecognizable‘ as the government. Government surveillance started to become entwined with corporate surveillance, as both concurrently turned the citizen into a ‘subject’, and the consumer into a ‘product’, transacted between agencies, corporations, data brokers and advertisers (p. 192). Surveillance capitalism is defined as a ‘profoundly antidemocratic social force’ and ‘a market-driven coup from above… that feeds on people but is not of the people.’[1] Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon followed Google in making financial gains from analytics of consumer data. Once we establish an online presence, it is almost impossible to completely eradicate our trails. When young, Snowden was told he needed to start thinking about his ‘permanent record’ (p. 56). When he applied for his first job, Snowden was reminded of a different permanent record in the form of his childhood online posts. But Snowden reasons that we cannot erase the things that shame us, or the ways we have shamed ourselves online. We can, however, determine how we feel and react, whether to be crushed by the past or grow to be strong (p. 97). The NSA also aspired to collect useful data. This explains its ‘ultimate dream’, which is to be able to ‘store all of the files it has ever collected or produced for perpetuity, and so create a perfect memory. The permanent record’ (pp. 167–168). Yet, Snowden insists that our online histories should never be used against us punitively.

The main attack on Snowden’s actions is that he failed to follow the proper procedures and work it out internally. Yet, Snowden defends himself by noting that ‘my superiors were not only aware of what the agency was doing, they were actively directing it — they were complicit’ (p. 235). If ‘proper channels’ meant the ‘internal reporting mechanisms within NSA’, indeed then Snowden failed to abide by it. However, if ‘proper channels’ means the ‘reporting mechanisms within a democracy’, then Snowden had indeed gone through the appropriate way.[2] He is also attacked on the ground that he has no moral right and justification to disclose such massive secrets. Again, he defends by saying that ‘I never thought that I alone should be able to choose which of my country’s secrets should be made known to the public and which should not’ (p. 8). He indeed only disclosed documents to trusted journalists. He was wise to acknowledge that ‘cooperating with some type of media organization would defend me against the worst accusations of rogue activity, and correct for whatever biases I had’ (p. 243), and for good reasons.

The strongest argument for Snowden’s whistleblowing is grounded upon democracy’s promise for liberty and truth, which is much more convincing and powerful than the criticism. Snowden backs up his argument by explaining the meanings of three terms: democracy, privacy, and whistleblowing. In a democracy, Snowden argues that people are citizens that form a social contract with the government with a consent, which is ‘periodically renewed and is constitutionally revocable’ (pp. 206–207). This is in contrast to authoritarian regimes, where people are subjects who give their rights to the state, willingly or not. Then, privacy is a big component of moral rights. Rights, according to Snowden, ‘exist in that open-ended empty space created through the restriction of government power’ (p. 207) only. Such rights include the rights to free press, speech, religion and assembly. Privacy, institutionally instantiated in the Bill of Rights, is thus the ‘single concept that encompasses all this negative or potential space that’s off-limits to the government. It is an empty zone that lies beyond the reach of the state, a void into which the law is only permitted to venture with a warrant’ (pp. 207–208). The concepts of democracy and privacy thus bring whistleblowing nicely into the picture, when all else has failed in the state. In the post-911 America, Snowden feels that the Constitution has stopped to function properly and failed ‘deliberately and with coordination’ in terms of checks and balances that have led to the abuse of power (p. 232). The three branches of the government have not lived up to their respective expectations of supervising, maintaining order and upholding law, thus leading to a ‘culture of impunity’ (pp. 230–232). Therefore, Snowden presents a very coherent and persuasive rationalization behind his personally costly decision. The US Justice Department has filed a civil lawsuit to thwart Snowden from receiving money from book sales, because he has violated CIA and NSA non-disclosure agreements. Snowden is still charged under the 1917 Espionage Act and may be put to jail forever.

The personal vulnerability of the spy and the informer is presented painfully to the reader, as Snowden reflects on ‘the greatest regret’ of his life, which was the ‘reflexive, unquestioning support’ for the War on Terror. In terms of structure, there are twenty-nine chapters, divided into three parts: his youth, experience in the Intelligence Community, abuses in NSA and CIA, and finally the decision. The title of the book is also inspired by Snowden’s experiences with indelible traces of our lives, the archives of our everlasting marks we leave behind. The intended audience are the detractors and defenders alike, and those learning about surveillance and encryption technologies, or those already well informed. Snowden warns that the ‘vision of an appalling future’ (p. 196) is awaiting humanity if we cannot reclaim control of our data and our lives. The major limitation of Permanent Record is that there are no new revelations as the reader has already followed through most of Snowden’s journey.

[1] Shoshana Zuboff , The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: the fight for a human future at the new frontier of power (New York: Public Affairs, Hachette Book Group, 2019), p. 513.

[2] Patrick D. Anderson, ‘Book Review’, Springer Nature B.V. 2019, Ethics and Information Technology, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10676-019-09521-2.

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