How One Man Exposed The Truth About Government Spying And Digital Security
Henry Holt ($19.99)
by John Hawkins
Edward Snowden’s 2019 memoir Permanent Record was chock full of the seamy details of state corruption that can get a fellow in trouble if he reveals them to the world. He told us about homo contractus, a term used to describe government employees with top secret clearance being poached by private companies to do the same work (spying) for the same people (CIA, NSA) for more tax-paid money and no public scrutiny. There were titillating details of LOVEINT, a disavowed program that allows NSA employees to listen in on the conversations of love interests and exchange pornographic material. It even told about some astonishing coincidences—for instance, Snowden’s forebears were slave owners whose land was confiscated by the government and became Fort Meade, the place where NSA headquarters are located.
The recently-released Young Readers Edition of Permanent Record takes out all that adult “smut,” snipping out about one hundred pages of lugubrious detail while leaving the language, and tone mostly intact. Surprisingly, what’s left is a hero’s tale with all the stuff kids love in a book—adventure, fighting tyrants, young love, righteous parental moral homilies, ideals turned dystopic—with Capitalism coming across as a nearly indestructible cyborg needing some Das Kapitation from a John Connors type. That's a lot to put on the shoulders of a young do-gooder, but it’s now or never, says Snowden.
The book has three parts: Snowden’s childhood years, the 9/11 wake-up, and how he became a whistleblower. Growing up, he loved Bulfinch’s Mythology, Aesop’s Fables, and, of course, the tales of King Arthur's court. Of particular interest was the story of the “tyrannical” Welsh king Rhitta Gawr, “who refused to accept that the age of his reign had passed and that in the future the world would be ruled by human kings,” writes Snowden. He tells of getting around “the System” at school, skirting its rules to do minimal work in history class, only to be scolded by the teacher and told he must mind that such cleverness could become part of his “permanent record.”
This raises the main theme of the book: We all, unwittingly, have “permanent records” that the government and its tech partners (Google, Amazon, Facebook) keep on us and are more than willing to lie about. Snowden tells his young readers that the government could one day, arbitrarily, use the information gathered against anyone, perhaps even retroactively. Some say we have already crossed the abyss, but Snowden seems to have a modicum of hope left for the next generation to reverse this negativity.
Snowden relates how the U.S. government let us down before and after 9/11—before, by ignoring warnings about an imminent threat; after, by 'taking the gloves off' and creating a colossal surveillance state that threatens to eviscerate human privacy, and with it consciousness and the ability to think freely. He also sees the mainstream media as culpable, pointing out that nine years before his whistleblowing revelations, the New York Times quashed a piece that would have brought to light the Bush administration’s order to vacuum up American cyber data without a court order. When Snowden learned of this program and others, he was inspired to reveal what he knew about the secret and unconstitutional malfeasance of his government.
So what is Snowden's final message to young heroes in waiting—the future class of democracy-lovers and whistleblowers? “If we don’t reclaim our data now, future generations might not be able to do so,” Snowden writes at the end of his memoir; “We can't let the godlike surveillance we're under be used to ‘predict’ our criminal activity.”