“The computer guy [sic]…can know everything…”
–Edward Snowden, Permanent Record
We all know someone who has suffered explicit privacy violations through data breaches, has been censored, or has valiantly fought for press, Internet, and telecommunications freedoms at a time of deep political polarities and culture war divisions. Edward Snowden’s life reveals it’s not just “the computer guy” (or other non-male folks) at tech’s helms, but the general U.S. public that bears witness to corporatized data surveillance state violations, or the data industrial complex. This secretive sprawling network is the invasive rule today; it involves regular media outlets, telecommunications, social media platforms, Internet service providers, and government agencies.
In the contemporary U.S. there’s nowhere to run and hide. Edward Snowden seeks to change this, and he reminds us of his mission again upon publication of his supposedly illegal memoir, Permanent Record. (You’ll miss essential technical details too numerous to be covered here if you don’t read the memoir yourself, by the way. )
If it weren’t for people like Snowden, the U.S. public wouldn’t know that coordinated privacy violation, resulting in mass surveillance, is a central governmental security program. Permanent Record teaches if the U.S. government has its way, all telecommunications and cyberspace explorations would be accessible. As it stands, our lives are reduced to massive cash vaults for tandem agencies and corporations, exploiting us politically— for profit.
Hello, Cambridge Analytica. I am talking to you. Rapacious technocapitalism consistently adds to its official ruling class of spineless security state multimillionaires and billionaires. I’m talking to you, Palantir, Google, Amazon, Facebook…
Snowden’s Permanent Record (along with Manning and Assange’s ongoing cases) unintentionally upholds mythological— even Homeric— virtues: freedom, valor, love. You know, the attributes we collectively value amidst our otherwise sharply articulated political differences— especially in this presidential campaign season.
News flash: U.S. surveillance has resulted in something besides a democracy. According to Snowden: “Any elected government that relies on surveillance to maintain control of a citizenry that regards surveillance as anathema to democracy has effectively ceased to be a democracy (p.330).”
Here, it’s the public “citizenry” that imbues the government with its democratic character, defining what is and is not democratic.
Snowden’s above quoted words ring true with First and Fourth amendment constitutional convictions. It could be scrawled near the Liberty Bell, or on a plaque in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building. This might be the real reason why the U.S. Justice Department says Snowden’s book violates his nondisclosure agreement with the federal government, and is suing to acquire its proceeds. Permanent Record is a threatening document that extensively records all NSA and intelligence community (IC) mass surveillance program sacred cows.
According to Snowden, under mass surveillance, the U.S. has “ceased to be a democracy.” Current U.S. left rhetoric might criticize Snowden’s view that U.S. democracy ever existed. Another view is that due to its settler colonial status, founded on stolen land and free labor, American capitalism can not be a democracy by definition. In this view, surveillance is the expression, not the exception, of U.S. national character. That debate is ongoing, but in so far as this is a legal battle with Espionage Act threats, the Constitution marks relevant parameters.
It’s common knowledge that leftist/ anti-imperialist/ anti-racist/ ecological/feminist/ labor/ socialist/ communist/ anarchist/ queer activists have historically suffered under Cointelpro sureveillance and are current targets of ongoing IC sabotage. Consider how the new FBI profiling category–the “black identity extremist”–emerged after Black Lives Matter. Consider the comrades we’ve lost under dubious circumstances. For any form of survival, we must align with Snowden’s critical oppositional insider knowledge and create anti-surveillance state solidarity amidst the chaos produced by security state entities.
Snowden’s stated relationship to the concept of democracy exemplifies what I term here the “whistleblower dialectic.” Initial faith in the system places would be whistleblowers in proximity to the very information they later expose as problematic: proximity creates bona fide whistleblowers. While whistleblowers themselves may begin careers in a blissful state of innocent naivete (this is an exaggeration, of course), their exposed information is the radical must-have product, regardless of their own intentions or histories.
This is what makes whistleblowing so important in the security state/ Big Tech era: it’s not where they begin, but where they end that matters politically. Veteran and soldier knowledge is also a case in point here. Think of how central the returning Vietnam soldiers’ testimony was for the anti-war movement in the 60’s and 70’s. They didn’t burn their draft cards in the first instance, as others did, but if they returned to the U.S. alive, many infuriated and damaged soldiers held very important information. This is the same for our anti-war veterans and soldiers-in-combat today.
Snowden physically risked his life to challenge surveillance forces and expose deep state machinations. He should be praised for his sacrifices, not nitpicked on his rhetorical fine points in Permanent Record or elsewhere.
That said, Snowden is not simply another white American male with some precious constitutional violations to rectify; he’s a political exile from a government that sadistically pursues those holding it accountable to its own constitutional claims. After working countless IC sub-contracted and government jobs, Snowden is an intelligence tech expert with a thorough understanding of constitutional violations, exposed by releasing classified information.
Please recall, although granted temporary Russian asylum, he faces extradition, like Assange, to the U.S. Like Assange and Manning’s cases, state power is the central problem, as it cozies up to Big Tech to unleash a Draconian, Orwellian, Palantirian-dystopian nightmare on the world. It is not hysterical to recognize just how doomed resistance seems under this surveillance arrangement. Just as digitization, like GPS phone capabilities, can map individuals whereabouts so can individuals be followed and harassed. This happened to Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, while he was in Hong Kong releasing classified documents.
Naive as it may seem, those constitutional appeals to democracy’s privacy rights, with accompanying regulatory demands on Big Tech, will remain part of a larger strategy here.
As argued in my piece on Assange’s possible extradition, potential critics here should recall the battle is against U.S. state power/ Big Tech, and not for picture perfect defendants. By the way, it appears Snowden’s particular character and position relieve him of the magnitude of (gossipy) public opinion charges Assange has not avoided. Snowden reveals his good character precisely when he could be snarky about Assange; he claims Assange was “genuinely invested” in helping him evade capture, refuting charges Assange helped Snowden out of “self-interest (p.301).”
Gossipy, petty hairsplitting, and jealous dismissals of exiled/ politically imprisoned press freedom/ anti-surveillance hackers, should dissipate as more people read Snowden’s eloquently written and even suspenseful “permanent record.” How he arrived in Russia as an exiled political dissident from a hostile imperialist regime waging an intelligence (and street) war against its most profound global and domestic critics is a captivating story well-written enough to provoke the U.S. Justice Department.
Snowden’s Internet: Jungle Gym, Tree House, Fortress, Classroom
Heroic values run deep among the hacktivists facing U.S. Espionage charges. Snowden’s values were shaped by his earliest sense of youthful freedom. This freedom was encouraged by the Internet’s early freeform quality that is today a mere semblance of its former non-corporatized incarnation.
When it comes to autobiographical recollections about cyber-hacking skills of the magnitude Snowden’s document liberation reveals, it all begins with access, which he had. Snowden is the child of military/ federal government employees. His dad worked for the Aeronautical Engineering Division at Coast Guard Headquarters in D.C. His mom ended up working for the National Security Agency (NSA) itself, if you can imagine that poetically just legacy. As Snowden tells it, his father casually plunked an early computer with a dial up modem on a centrally located table in his childhood home, and the rest is history. Unlimited access to the earliest version of the Web empowered him with creative and exploratory space that transferred seamlessly to a cyber-intelligence career stopped short by his own convictions against the surveillance apparatus.
This is not his mother’s NSA.
Not only is Permanent Record a significant document, itself marking the anti-surveillance legal battle his name is synonymous with, but Snowden’s recollections of the early Internet is really engaging reading for general technology studies purposes.
He writes: “Internet access, and the emergence of the Web, was my generation’s big bang or Precambrian explosion. It irrevocably altered the course of my life as it did the lives of everyone. From the age of 12 or so, I tried to spend every waking moment online. The Internet was my sanctuary; the Web became my jungle gym, my treehouse, my fortress, my classroom without walls (p.42).”
Snowden fondly remembers the early days of “limitless space that was growing exponentially, adding web pages by the day, by the hour, by the minute (p.42)…” Today’s monitored, tracked, recorded, and hunted Internet portals no doubt have Snowden, and so many Internet users, nostalgic for those Precambrian days and nights online. Snowden knows what cyberspace could have been, how government and corporations abuse it, and what it could be transformed into now with immense sacrifice and political struggle, as his biography reveals.
If you want to overthrow the U.S. government, including its unlimited data saved in clouds, you’ll need top level security clearances and serious hacker skills. Enter Edward Snowden.
Another sense of early Internet freedom Snowden so candidly describes is anonymous virtual identities. This is far from today’s self-evidentiary Facebook culture favoring real identities. Instead, the early Internet is awash in anonymous, anti-identitarian fluidity, delinkinking “users’ personas” and “their offline legal identity (p.47).” Snowden defends anonymity’s liberating negation of positivistic and hegemonic online culture; this culture is epitomized by the security state’s facial recognition technology, for example. Voluntary updated user data, profiles linked to mainstreamed cryptocurrency accounts: all data saved securely in a convenient accessible cloud, right?
Whimsically picking new names (inventive handles) and new faces (avatars) is the opposite of “enforcing fidelity to memory, identitarian consistency, and ideological conformity (p. 47).” Snowden defends self-reinvention in the following description:
“The early Internet’s dissociative opportunities encouraged…my generation… to change our most deeply held opinions, instead of just digging in defending them when challenged. This ability to reinvent ourselves meant that we never had to close our minds by picking sides, or close ranks out of fear of doing irreparable harm to our reputations. Mistakes that were swiftly punished but swiftly rectified allowed both the community and the “offender” to move on. To me, and to many, this felt like freedom (p.47).”
As employment and dating sites increasingly required “real” online profiles, non-commercial, experimentally playful days of nonstop gaming under constantly changing identities has faded, favoring FaZe Clan’s manic panic profiteering instead. Some hold steady on truly anonymous gaming avatar usage amidst reactionary charges of “irresponsbility” or “trolling.” Most fold under market expediencies.
Many present day cyber-heroes report lackluster school experience in contrast to cozier online homelife, resulting in the first mention of Snowden’s book’s title. One of Snowden’s teachers admonishes his lower grades: “You have so much potential, Ed… You have to start thinking about your permanent record (p.56).”
He was thinking about video games and hacker zines, not his permanent record, apparently.
Snowden’s brain pegged the Internet’s multi-faceted potential, to be sure. In addition to logging on to play the earliest versions of Doom, Quake, and Ultima, or argue some controversial opinion, he also met new people (most notably his wife, Lindsay Mills) and applied for jobs online. He even found a security glitch in Los Alamos National Laboratory website. The Lab accepted his report and fixed the problem (p.57)
Here’s just one reason to drop all Snowden’s charges: his attention to Los Alamos’ site may have prevented a nuclear catastrophe. Put that on his permanent record.
Snowden’s cyber-appreciations were so immense he pursued an IC job after 9/11 because he identified with the task of achieving real world security. He strategically joined the military for a brief spell, before discharge due to injury, because this would grant him the highest security clearance.
The post 9/11intelligence culture was rampant with private subcontracting, producing a gig mentality that his own IC career reflects. His first position was with a CIA subcontractor stationed in Beltway headquarters, then he transferred to Geneva and Tokyo before returning to work for CIA sub-contracted Dell in the Beltway again. Finally, he ended up at the Hawaii NSA position where he painstakingly encrypted his evidence: Booz, Allen, Hamilton was his last position before exile.
His work trajectory is complex, which is why memoir chapters titled after job locations are helpful here.
Valor: CIA Systems Administrator to the Stars
For a fun description of life as a nighttime shift subcontracted CIA employee, replete with predictable characteristics, like coworker malaise and outdated equipment mishaps, look no further.
He starts off on a bad foot with the CIA by complaining about housing accommodations during CIA training. A dilapidated Comfort Inn accommodated the cloistered, top-secret on-site Warrenton Training Center, aka. “The Hill” in Warrenton, Virginia. He was harshly admonished for complaining, but got his team transferred to better temp housing.
How’s that for an early glimpse of Edward Snowden, IC labor activist?
Permanent Record’s middle section captures post-9/11 blank check security state boom time which had Snowden morphing into and moving on from various intel security tech positions for years. This kind of transferring was not viewed as suspicious, and it allowed Snowden a wider sense of the intelligence community (IC) as it evolved its technological prowess.
The curiosity engendered by early Internet freedoms produced an insatiable interest in not just the content, but the form, of CIA and IC information. Here, Snowden’s routine hindsight about IC/ CIA security culture becomes a hacker’s taunt against the apparatus itself. The Justice Department knows this well.
Describing his time with CIA computers, Snowden credits childhood desire to “understand how everything works.” This leads to his now haunting reflection that “one thing that the disorganized CIA didn’t quite understand at the time, and that no major employer outside of Silicon Valley understood, either: the computer guy [sic] knows everything, or rather, can know everything (p.133).”
These are highly entertaining pages, well-written, with prose accurately foreshadowing a dramatic turn towards Russian exile.
What exactly happened?
Snowden regales us with late night explorations into the CIA’s own Internet, social media platform, and arcane data back-up protocols. Internal news sites inspired his casual absorption of “top secret dispatches regarding trade talks and coups as they were still unfolding… (p.133)”
He confidently confirms or denies longstanding CIA-related conspiracy theories. Years spent on internal sites have almost everything clarified: “Yes, man really did land on the moon. Climate change is real. Chemtrails are not a thing (p.133).”
It’s surprising he doesn’t weigh in on the who’s who of rumored Hollywood/ Democratic National Committee’s MK Ultra beta kitten programming scenes via Jeffrey Epstein’s Black Book contacts.
Edward Snowden never went on the Lolita Express. Add that to his permanent record.
Snowden’s position is sacrosanct for a generation experiencing the ruinous IC transition from human intelligence (HUMINT) to tech intelligence (SIGINT) gathering– or what would become a combination of the two modes. In Geneva, a co-worker casually informed Snowden that when he has a subject to investigate,“just give us his email address and we’ll take care of it (p.160).”
A seemingly casual comment like this, to a Systems Administrator like Snowden, sparked concern about the IC’s reach into private, seemingly secure, platforms— like email.
In a blizzard of information, events, personalities, and post 9/11 IC daily realities, Snowden begins to analyze the content and form of data storage protocols. It’s the form that enlightens him to what the U.S. is doing globally, as expressed in its international Web relation security protocols. He notes that the NSA only shares its secured data with the “Five Eyes” club. Canada, Britain, New Zealand, Australia, and the U.S. share info through the UKUSA Agreement– a treaty for joint cooperation in signals intelligence with secret origins, of course.
Such much for NATO’s relevance.
In Tokyo, Snowden begins another position, accompanied by Lindsay Mills. Japan introduces him to America’s “home field advantage” when it comes to Web access via American companies dominance over software (Microsoft, Google, Oracle), hardware (HP, Apple, Dell) and chips, routers, modems, services, platforms, and cloud services. While many products are manufactured overseas, the American I.D. allows companies to use “American policies to pervert law and permit the U.S. government to surveill virtually” everyone (p.164).
Here, Snowden’s candor about his relative naivete entering Tokyo’s NSA Pacific Technical Center (PTC) in 2009 is endearing, as he comes to grips with how global Internet infrastructure leads to the obvious condition of U.S. planetary surveillance programs. That the NSA was more technically sophisticated and less secure, compared to its CIA counterpart, also caught Snowden’s attention. Again, hindsight transforms an innocent reflection about inter-agency differences into a hacker’s taunt: a lax security culture allowed Snowden to expose NSA surveillance procedures to the world.
Things shifted in Tokyo, when Snowden was researching for a Chinese conference on foreign military spying operations (p.169). He begins to encounter the NSA’s “array of abuses” through researching China’s own “totalitarian” government surveillance capabilities. Snowden writes:
“I had the sneaking sense while I was looking through all this China material that it was looking at a mirror and seeing a reflection of America. What China was doing publicly to its own citizens, America might be–could be–doing secretly to the world (p.171).”
The American internet is more easily accessed and more “democratic,” exercising minimal cautious censorship, right? Wrong. Snowden learns Internet computerware is mass surveillance machinery. Websites lure users into data traps, accompanied by rapid malware deployments, resulting in an unregulated Wild West of American-cum-multinational capital. The gold nugget here is what the NSA calls “metadata”–the “unwritten, unspoken information that can expose the broader contexts and patterns of behavior (p.179).” Another word for this is “activity data”: “…all the records of all the things you do on your devices and all the things your devices do on their own”(p.179).
Snowden differentiates streamlined metadata from the clumsy, bulk collection of infinite content. One popular idea of what “mass cyber surveillance” involves (p.178) is this clunky bulk– which leads many to decry the idea of mass surveillance itself because there’s too much content to spy effectively. In the first surveilling instance, metadata reveals relevant info: individual associative synopses, via phone, email, social media, that help government and corporations “extrapolate predictions of behavior (p.180).” They move in if they get suspicious of your metadata (or long term political activist data held in FBI files, acquired by FOIA requests.)
Metadata meets bio-data, too. While surveillants can’t access “what’s actually going on inside your head,” the inevitability of mass real time mind reading technologies, via electrode-based microchip enhancements, inch closer– as reported by The Guardian from Nature Journal.
Has Snowden encountered the ultra-secretive CIA MK Ultra program? What’s the latest in psych op tech these days, or should we ask Palantir? Inquiring minds want to know!
Research mainstreaming previously esoteric electrode technologies, used in some patient paralysis applications, signals an unthinkable crisis in any remaining semblance of a democracy (that experts like Snowden are best equipped to address.) Beyond conspiracy theory circles, microchipping, which could theoretically be done involuntarily en masse, will further violate privacy boundaries already in crisis.
Add to his permanent record that Snowden pointedly rejects this microchipped dystopian future.
Metadata facilitates mass surveillance capabilities. It leads surveillants to the trough, and they can continue to drink in the finer details of lives if deemed necessary. Japan provided Snowden with his metadata “atomic moment”–when he realized technological dominance supersedes ethical considerations.
Given market-driven mind reading microchipping capabilities, we could have used tech regulatory ethics, like, twenty years ago.
Much to be regulated here, but it’s the government doing it to the people. NSA surveillance techniques select from the “vast mass of dragneted communications (p.224).” There are two gathering modes: server and upstream collecting. PRISM collects data–email, photos, video, audio, search content–from servers (Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, YouTube, Skype, AOL, Apple, and Paltalk).
Arguably “more invasive” is use of “NSA’s Special Sources Operations Unit which built secret wiretapping equipment and embedded it inside the corporate facilities of obliging Internet service providers around the world (p.224).” This upstream collection allows interception as users place search terms in engines. The NSA weapon of choice here is TURBULENCE, described as: “a few black servers stacked up on top of one another, together about the size of a four shelf bookcase… installed in rooms at major private telecommunication buildings throughout allied countries… in U.S. embassies and on U.S. military bases (p.225).”
One of TURBULENCE’s tools, TURMOIL, passively collects midstream data if it trips security wires. The second tool, TURBINE, takes over if your data is deemed suspicious. Here, NSA servers uses choice malware to attack your site: you get “all the content you want… with all the surveillance you don’t… in less than 686 milliseconds (p.226).” All without government seeking a warrant, even if this malware allows surveillants to access metadata and “your entire digital life.”
The Intercept provides an excellent guide to XKEYSCORE, the NSA’s self-described “widest reaching system.” Snowden describes it as direct access to people’s desktops in real time. The National Tailored Access Operations (NTAO) division “remotely hacks into the computers of people whom analysts had selected as targets (p.330).” This includes foreign targets, too. In Hawaii, Snowden landed a contracted position with Booz Allen Hamilton’s NTOC division before he went AWOL on this whole surveillance enterprise.
Thanks to Snowden’s indomitable valor exposing NSA surveillance in 2013, massive phone spying is curtailed by the 2015 U.S. Freedom Act requiring warrants for telecommunications metadata bulk collection. Now, just being an American making a cell phone call is not considered “relevant” enough to potential foreign intelligence and terror investigations. But the Internet still revolves around NSA programs, and telecommunications monitoring can happen under the radar.
Remember that “the computer guy [sic]…can know everything…”– even that the Internet battle is just beginning.
Love in the Time of Callin’ Ya
From Booz Allen Hamilton to Hong Kong: Snowden surpasses Hawaii and airport security measures to smuggle supporting documents to Hong Kong’s Mira Hotel. He boarded up in there for ten days until U.S. journalist-heroes Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald arrive. This occurred just as they had all prepared in their carefully crafted and encrypted email plans, but it was nonetheless a “surreal dynamic” for Snowden.
One jarring hotel moment is when Greenwald scrutinized Snowden’s youthful appearance, questioning his willingness to “throw his life away (p.288).” More uplifting is Snowden’s recognition of Poitras’ amazing journalistic foresight, arriving with her “indispensable” video camera in hand.
These passages reveal language’s failure to communicate precarity; prose strains to capture the risk levels, mishaps resulting in quick assassinations. Words fail us. The inherent risks in the lives of journalists, publishers, and various sundried whistleblower-types in the data-mining/ surveillance state era can not be underscored here. These relative positions of social/ educational privilege, via cultural capital and technological access, quickly morph into hunted lives standing in as universal subjects in a protracted political battle against a corporatized data surveillance state that has its venture capital aimed at the next big surveillance mechanism.
Snowden, Poitras, Greenwald, and Ewen MacAskill were in the Hong Kong hotel room, while Lindsay Mills was notably absent. While more secure in the presence of the arriving team, Snowden describes “empty and desolate” sleepless nights away from his real security: his lover.
[Here Snowden, the lover, should be recognized for his “good guy” stance on the temptations of IC porn/ doxxing subcultures. He briefly touches on this when describing how SIGINT coworkers track and harass ex-lovers. You can imagine the underground sex subcultures spawned from agent access to streams of porn and personal data. Shades of Epstein here.]
Mills would do well to begin her own memoir; she provides diary pages for a Permanent Record chapter called “From the Diaries of Lindsay Mills.” Here she describes coping through police/agent harassment and intimidation, with a strong support network including legally-savvy friends and family— especially Snowden’s mother, Wendy.
As Snowden’s wife-to-be and mother grow sick with worry stateside, his journalist comrades in Hong Kong, along with lawyers, secured him a stay with four adult Filipino and Sri Lankan refugees–Vanessa Rodel, Ajith Pushpakumara, Supun Thilina Kellapatha, and Nadeeka Dilrukshi Nonis— and two girls. They are military torture, rape/ sexual abuse survivors— and Snowden describes feeling welcomed and protected as he hid out with those who understand well the the prevailing precarity of a state-defined illegal status (p.296).
Another crucial character in the Hong Kong story is WikiLeaks journalist, Sarah Harrison, whose impressive confidence assures Snowden while twenty-seven asylum requests were being denied. Once Ecuador came through with asylum, Snowden’s passport was suspiciously cancelled by John Kerry. Russia became Snowden’s place of exile. He likens exile to “an endless layover”–inspired by his 40 days and 40 nights stay, with Harrison, in Russia’s Sheremetyevo airport. Then he moved to Moscow.
The story ends at a kind of beginning in the final chapter, “Love and Exile.” Mills joins Snowden in 2014. Although they were necessarily separated by Snowden’s secret keeping, the lovers reunited to continue battling together. They even fit in enjoyable moments, like attending the Bolshoi ballet, while still remaining under the radar.
Snowden describes Lindsay as “more patient and generous and kind” than himself, and their love is what’s being interrupted, tracked, targeted, and hunted by the rapacious data industrial complex’s political protectors. Data is now more valuable than oil.
As the Justice Department pursues Snowden’s memoir royalties, emerging security tech behemoth, Palantir, has Peter Thiel, Alex Karp, and staff shoring up ICE deportation and BP North Sea oil extraction contracts. If we ever needed a reminder of polarized realities in the data monetization age, and the NSA/ CIA’s own ongoing violations, it can be found in these CIA workers’ lives. Thiel/ Karp represent unbridled CIA privatization efforts that monetize the global data Snowden is punished for portraying as private information. Snowden also insists unconstitutional NSA/ CIA data acquisition practices are public information.
If not, consider the deeply troubling future: involuntary and voluntary mass microchipping, routinized online bio-doxxing programs, bio-data warfare tactics, and data-theft, including child and adult nudity, with commercial and underground applications. All of this coordinated in user-friendly social mediated-cryptocurrency packaging whereby users themselves never really understand which wing of the sprawling global IC data industrial complex they work for. They just know they get paid to promote or destroy online product, or content, including people’s reputations.
On the flip side of the individual privacy coin is government transparency in telecommunications info gathering, and illegal military operations reporting. Snowden is exiled while Reality Winner, Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, and countless others endure their own individual, but deeply intertwined, punishments.