As the year came to a close last week, I read the most important book of 2019, Permanent Record by Edward Snowden. Although Snowden’s subject is mostly government data collection on civilians, it dovetails with what I think is the major story of 2019, the rise of private-sector data collection about our personal lives.
Snowden is perhaps the most polarizing figure of the third millennium in the United States.1
In 2013 Snowden broke the law and his professional oath by exposing to select journalists secret documents of the US Deep State, secrets drawn from the server archives of the NSA and CIA, where he had worked as a systems engineer for seven years. He fled to Hong Kong, and later landed in Russia, where he remains in exile today. His exposure of state secrets about official surveillance methods and programs, Snowden claims, was in the interest of serving something larger than the laws of the state. He claims to serve the interests of people and the ideals of the US Constitution.
Snowden takes pains in the first 100 pages to explain his deep roots in America and his family’s history of government service. Both of his parents had top secret clearances in the course of their careers. In a latter section of the book he describes reading a hard copy – made of physical paper, glue and staples – of the US Constitution in his office cubicle, to the puzzlement of his NSA and CIA colleagues.
The first surprising fact about Permanent Record is what a good a writer Snowden is. He has a knack for anecdote and humor to leaven his clear explanation of the technical issues of surveillance, and the dramatic timeline of his treason-for-a-higher-cause.
Snowden says the failure of government checks to account for the new technology and expanded mandate of the intelligence community (IC) to collect data on citizens meant that something had fundamentally broken. He writes, “The IC had come to understand the rules of our system better than the people who had created it, and they used that knowledge to their advantage. They’d hacked the Constitution.”
Snowden uses the metaphor of Frankenstein – already familiar to IT and intelligence communities – to describe this problem of technology that creates unexpected dangers for its creators and unsuspecting civilians.
Snowden does not reason like a technologist who admires technology for its own sake. He reasons like a humanist, who understand technology enough to be very afraid for us.
A distillation of Snowden’s warning in his book is this: So vast are the powers of the US government’s spy technology that every web search, every location, every digital interaction any individual makes – down to the keystroke – can and will be monitored, recorded, and used against you. This makes a mockery of what we might think our Miranda rights are, or what we suppose our constitutional protections against unlawful search may be.
In the six years since Snowden’s disclosures, we have become increasingly aware not just of government collection of our personal secrets but also the willing donation of our personal secrets to private companies.
Snowden’s biggest warning, at the time of his secrets-exposure in 2013, was about the warrantless surveillance of the US government on private citizens through aggregated phone data collection.
Looking back on the biggest business stories of 2019, however, the issues raised by Snowden in his book clearly leaped from the government to the for-profit corporate sector. In 2019, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified to the US Congress about the damage his network can wreak on their 2.5 billion active users. Twitter banned political ads in 2019, although we continue to struggle with the political and social implications of this new broadcast technology. Massive private data breaches, often of credit histories and personal identifying information, have become a monthly occurrence.
As Snowden says, “If government surveillance was having the effect of turning the citizen into a subject, at the mercy of state power, then corporate surveillance was turning the consumer into a product, which corporations sold to other corporations, data brokers, and advertisers.”
We who occupy the moderate Right or Left have a failure of imagination with respect to how our data is being collected, by both our own government and private industry.
Because we don’t understand communications and data technology and its development over the last 25 years, only the fringes of our political spectrum have the proper disaffection and paranoia to imagine the extent to which we are being watched. And being watched leads to being controlled, influenced.
If you can’t currently sense the NSA monitoring all of your communications via your tooth-fillings, you have not properly attached the tinfoil to your cranium. Keep pushing down harder. Yes, I’m joking, but only because it’s easier for me to laugh than cry. In all seriousness, it’s very unsettling to read Snowden’s book.
As citizens of a society, we do not have sufficient privacy protections in place, appropriate for 2020 technology. As individuals, we have not adopted the correct behavior in 2020 to protect our individual privacy from either government or corporate overlords. Frankenstein’s monster is not going back to the laboratory without a terrible fight.
After reading his book, while acknowledging how polarizing his actions have been, I am not on the fence about his role, actions, or motivations. Snowden is utterly credible. Informed. Thoughtful. Patriotic. We need to read his story and try to understand his lessons.
“America was born from an act of treason,” he reminds us.
The historical significance of his book and Snowden’s actions will only be understood in the decades ahead. Meaning, if we head his warning and build protections against surveillance technology from the private sector and government, he’ll be honored as a kind of early martyr to the cause, sacrificing his own liberty so that ours can be preserved.
If we ignore his warning – which at this point in time seems the more likely path – the very meaning of his behavior will be discarded as illegal, unpatriotic, and irrelevant. What was even the point of that guy? Who cares, we’ll say, as we scroll through the timelines on our phone, uploading our current location and faces to permanent data-storage servers, in blissful ignorance.
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- I know a certain someone else just came to mind, but hear me out. ↩