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Snowden’s Mission

Data encryption is our only defense against the prying eyes

Before you go out and purchase Edward Snowden’s ‘Permanent Record’, consider the fact that by doing so, you are attracting even more unwanted attention to yourself.  The powerful forces that Snowden once worked for as a CIA employee and NSA subcontractor can (and will) draw conclusions from your queries, downloads and purchases, analyzing them, or more accurately, “manipulating” them (in Snowden’s words) so that they can predict behaviors to come.  If that sounds as farfetched as any scenario in some distant, fictional future where law enforcement preemptively strikes criminals before they even commit crimes, Snowden can confirm the future is here.  While millions of rapt viewers are Keeping Up with the Kardashians, thousands of equally voyeuristic private contractors are Keeping up with You.

The rewards that come with reading Snowden’s long-awaited and revelatory memoir come at a cost:  Your right to access it without triggering law enforcement agencies, while granting them the power to seize your communications without a warrant no longer exists.  Perhaps by googling the author, you have involuntarily given them the green light to access your text messages, check your medical records, store all your photos and emails, and keep every file you ever deleted in a database with the aim of exerting complete control over your life.

The above is just a partial list of their abilities, and a small sampling of the “spreadsheet of doom” compiled with your name on it, to be used against anyone who resists the National Security State.  Don’t think for a moment that this nexus of corporate, state and military interference into every aspect of your life is designed to keep you safe.  On the contrary, it was created to make you helpless against a system that could take you down at the stroke of a keypad for any perceived infraction against this regulatory, invisible force field known by a number of confusing acronyms.  These secretive institutions at the heart of the National Security State are in fact, transnational entities that serve a bipartisan political establishment with a stake in permanent war, and exist to uphold the status quo and defend it from the rabble-led movements threatening its hegemony.

Adding insult to these unnecessary violations of your privacy – or what Snowden prefers to call your “selfhood” – this doomsday dragnet was implemented and still administered by mostly private contractors with unfettered access to it all.  More access, in fact, than the individuals and entities meant to oversee and regulate it.  The technocratic, committee-serving wonks who unleashed this monster are incapable of containing it, and rely on the skill sets of lower-tier, poorly trained employees who can exploit it for personal gain.  This particular fact should give pause to anyone who still believes that spy agencies are served by principled and scrupulous players, professionally unconcerned by your habit of viewing, say, online tentacle porn in pursuit of someone who wants to do worse damage than spooge on a keyboard.

Think of their interference into your online activities as being strip-searched at every stoplight along the information highway, while SWAT teams raid your house and tear up everything in it.  Snowden compares this process to “standing naked before power”.  Eventually, you will alter your non-criminal lifestyle to minimize these intrusions into your life, becoming as boring as anyone with opinions about craft beer.  More ominously, you are being primed to exchange concealment of certain aspects of your private life for information implicating others.

In Israel, advanced surveillance technology monitors and records every movement made by its imprisoned Palestinian population, whether they have access to a computer or not.  CCTV cameras equipped with facial recognition software and hidden microphones, not to mention drones, give the occupying powers unprecedented access into the lives of these human guinea pigs, involuntarily paving the way for this intrusive military technology to be implemented worldwide.  For now, it allows the “Jewish State” increased leverage in all their attempts to recruit informants, forcing a gay person or an adulterer, for example, to rat out an acquaintance, neighbor, coworker, or even a family member in exchange for not exposing compromising personal information.

While Permanent Record doesn’t mention much about Israel, Snowden has elsewhere disclosed its often testy relationship with the NSA, particularly the agency’s legal prohibitions against using its technology and resources for targeted killings.  Israel’s applied pressure on its American counterparts to circumvent the law in order to carry out assassinations of Hezbollah members has resulted in a “compromise”.  So far it remains unknown how much of the law has been rewritten to satisfy a foreign power’s murderous imperatives.

Permanent Record’s strength as a taut, flawlessly argued jeremiad against state intrusion into the lives of its citizens leaves little room for rumination on peripheral facts in the service of an unswerving, clear-eyed narrative.  The book can only be faulted on its absolute fealty to its perfectly executed mission.   Snowden cuts through the notion of privacy in all its competing and vaguely worded elements to define it as a sphere that should remain off-limits by either corporate or state interest in it for their data harvesting mechanisms.  As it stands now, our privacy is as illusory as one’s belief that data can actually be disappeared.  For the (permanent) record, data is never deleted, it’s merely written over, and can be retrieved by anyone who knows where to look. For those who respond with “I have nothing to hide” to justify their willingness to cede their selfhood to the Corporate State, while sacrificing innocents who do have something to hide, (undocumented workers, political dissidents, whistleblowers, journalists, even battered wives) Snowden has some choice words:  “Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying that you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say”.  Boom!

Snowden’s memoir is notable for not just its revelations, but its omissions, understandable in light of his ongoing persecution and the threats he faces daily as an “enemy of the state”.  His abiding adherence to the sort of secrecy that is justified for certain aspects of law enforcement should refute any argument that whistleblowers put lives at risk. So far no prosecutor has ever been able to determine actual deaths as a result of exposing a war crime, arguing instead about potential risks that only exist in a policy wonk paper intended to justify an agency’s budget.   Still, he confirms that the Stuxnet virus, used to sabotage Iranian computer systems connected to its nuclear program, was jointly developed by American and Israeli spy agencies.  On a lighter note, he dispels any notion of extraterrestrials holding down top government posts.

Snowden, by his own reckoning, was never out to destroy the NSA, but merely intent on “reforming it”.  This particular admission is meant to dispel any lingering doubts that he is just another “disgruntled”, a low-rung employee with an axe to grind as he has often been described in the establishment media; itself the stenography pool of the state, unthinking and reflexive in its condemnations of whistleblowers like Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and now Glenn Greenwald.  Like his now-imprisoned counterparts, Snowden is principled to a fault truth-teller brought down by his own intellect, and the unwavering moral compass underlying and guiding it.

Snowden’s book outlines an airtight case against his own government and its “bulk collection” of our communications for reasons having nothing to do with external threats to civilians or infrastructure but internal resistance to the politics underlying such programs. The US’s now digitized hegemony across the globe – thanks in large part to President Obama’s authorization of warrantless wiretapping of everyone in the world – now overtakes its physical capacities as a superpower.  As the dollar declines as the world’s reserve currency, mass surveillance, with its blackmail capabilities can keep nations (and the marginalized populations within them) in line without the use of physical force, negotiations, or even diplomacy.

Snowden argues with the sleek and forceful logic of a computer, unencumbered by any doubt that the wrongs committed by his own government don’t only violate the letter of the law, but the spirit contained within its now altered and highly redacted parchments.  His almost algorithm likeability to extract a heart-stopping narrative from the mumbo-jumbo of tech jargon is his greatest strength as a writer.  This particular talent continues to weaken the government’s case against him.  So far their only line of defense against their illegal “bulk collection” of our benign-sounding data (for reasons that should give you nightmares in your every waking moment) is “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire” and “his girlfriend is a stripper”.

For those who insist that the whistleblower should defend himself in a court of law or “face the music” as any innocent person should do, Snowden with characteristic alacrity, says he would gladly “if the music was a fair and open trial”.   What most people don’t realize is the intent of government whistleblowers cannot be introduced at trial, disallowing their only line of defense.  Who among us would exchange freedom, however, curtailed by exile, and exchange it for a foregone guilty verdict in a secret tribunal?

Snowden dispels these falsehoods and all the straw man arguments for his conviction with the calm, rapid-fire discharge of his rhetorical weaponry.  This tendency towards machine-like precision and clarity of purpose should come as no surprise considering his early penchant for technology-based problem solving – first as an enthusiastic gamer, and while still in his teens, a hacker who was able to gain access to the Los Alamos National Laboratory (where nuclear weapons are developed and tested).  In a turn of events that would prove prophetic in reverse, the secretive facility’s remote interloper was personally thanked by one of its own in a phone call to his astonished mother.  Turns out, they were grateful to her son for pointing out the vulnerability of their security.

The tech prodigy, whom one might suspect is somewhere on that sliding scale indicator of autism, or at least on its highly functioning “spectrum”, is hardwired, it seems, to uphold the oaths he took when he assumed his position as a government security contractor.  Having solemnly sworn to uphold the constitution with almost dogmatic fealty to a document he kept on his desk in hard copy form, and the government he believed he was serving, the incrementally gained knowledge of its violations of these very principles compelled the young tech worker to reveal the truth of its mass surveillance program.

Once he had determined its illegality he was left, in his own words, “with no choice” but to inform the public of the violations committed against them by a rogue bureaucracy that concealed its worst excesses from even the elected officials who were briefed on its activities with false documentation and briefings.

Today, Snowden remains on a mission to defend his fellow citizens from the despotic technocracy the is replacing their enshrined rights with a terms of service agreement from Big Brother (and the private tech companies that commodify our innermost thoughts and use them to manipulate behaviors, commercially and politically).

Permanent Record is part autobiography, but more significantly, a manifesto of the post 9/11 digital age.  Snowden defines the internet 2.0 less for the technological advances of its infrastructure, noting instead the ideological frameworks constructed within it.  Failure to monetize our communications as fodder for targeted ads has transformed us all into ‘product’, not just for the social media platforms that own our data, and by extension us, but the government agencies that collateralize its predictive qualities, crunching even unknowingly surrendered data to anticipate your next move.

In the absence of the political will that will shut down illegal government surveillance, data encryption is our only defense against the prying eyes of a host of agencies all devoted to collating your data into a “spreadsheet of doom” to be activated in some unforeseen future, and ultimately weaponized.  Even knowledge of it presents its own bulwark against this ongoing assault on our most basic liberties as outlined in the Constitution.  Snowden argues that this document remains not only relevant in this digitized age, but strong enough to repel all official attempts to supersede it on the basis that it could never have anticipated the ever-growing demands of the National Security State – itself a more powerful entity than the nation-state that spawned its own Dr Frankenstein’s creature in the form of technology whose applications cannot be overstated as a threat to every democratic institution still remaining.

Jennifer Matsui is a writer living in Tokyo and a columnist for the print edition of CounterPunch magazine.

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