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Book Review: Edward Snowden’s ‘Permanent Record’

By Rashid Abbasi

Imagine an omniscient surveillance system in which all your online activities are being recorded without consent and become a permanent record. And a search engine used by government that returns results from your emails and messages. Constantly evolving technology creates new ethical puzzles. The State is perceived as a necessary evil, but the question of how much privacy of the individual the state has a right to breach has developed into numerous facets. Edward Snowden’s memoir Permanent Record is about his courageous attempt to unmask the unethical approach of the United States (US) and the corporate entities towards mass surveillance of citizens. It is about his journey from a well-established and high profile government employee to a whistleblower and citizens’ rights activist living in exile.

The autobiographical account begins with his childhood. He grew up in North Carolina and his parents worked for the government. He loved playing video games; his family got its first modem in 1992. His mother used to challenge him with math puzzles that he solved orally. The surveillance free internet of the 1990s was the “most pleasant and successful anarchy” in Snowden’s opinion. School felt unnecessary and a waste of time; the internet seemed the real teacher as it provided answers to his curiosity. The 9/11 attacks affected Snowden to the extent that he decided to join the US Army to serve his country. He was good at computers but joined the army as he wanted to be praised for different talents, “not just mind but also heart and muscle.” An injury during army training and the realization that the army did not suit him was followed by his employment by high profile intelligence agencies such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and National Security Agency (NSA). Around the same time he also met his future wife Lindsay Mills through a dating app.

The middle chapters in the book provide deep insights into the change of internet technology leading to a sea change in the United States’ Intelligence Community (IC). Organizations such as the CIA and NSA allot tasks to private contractors. In this way, public money is transferred to private organizations. An intelligence officer on paper will be hired for a company like Dell but will actually work for the CIA. As the number of internet users started increasing, the government intensified its surveillance; corporate entities like Amazon, Google, Facebook and others began to sell or share their user data. While working for the CIA, Snowden got to read internal news that “would eventually show up on network news, CNN, or Fox days later… and sometimes the internal news items never show up in the media at all.”

The book is full of instances where Snowden unravels interesting information about how modern espionage works. For example, the sophistication in signal intelligence has made embassies a safe haven for espionage, where spies often disguise themselves as diplomats. He describes his close encounter with human intelligence (HUMINT) that he found emotionally draining. During an upscale party in Geneva a Middle Eastern man became target of Snowden’s fellow Case Officer (CO), as he revealed during a friendly discussion that he handles accounts of rich Saudis. Snowden found that Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) has lesser risk. An agent could just send a message or email with an attachment and the attachment after opening will provide access not just to the target computer but its entire network.

He also explains highly advanced software, including the one he designed, that upgraded the data storage capacity of the NSA from days to years and called it ‘Epicshelter’. Snowden also impressed officials by creating a storage system not limited just to the NSA but that covered the wide network of IC and named it ‘Heartbeat’. The Heartbeat software later helped Snowden to download the files that he would share with journalists. The most compelling is the description of a program called Xkeyscore-software that could “even playback the recording of their online sessions, so that the screen you’d be looking at was their screen.”

Invading the privacy of ordinary people can be a violation of human rights. One can think of invasive surveillance as a stranger having access to the information that one does not want to share with anyone. There is indeed information that is necessary for the law to find the guilty among masses. That demands a balance between individual freedom and the State’s interference to protect citizens. Snowden draws a parallel between counter insurgency operations justifying deaths of innocents to control terrorism and unlawful surveillance that can victimize innocents in the name of security. For Snowden, in the mass surveillance of state post 9/11, “the technology has proved itself to be less potent against terror and more against liberty itself.” There are obviously those who do not care about privacy, “saying that you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different from saying you don’t care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say.” However, Snowden missed out mentioning that anonymous users are behind most of the cybercrimes. For example, fake profiles are used to spread misinformation and create chaos in society. A lot of these fake online profiles are sponsored and run by those in power to serve their interests. According to the Special Counsel of United States, Robert Mueller, Russia interfered in 2016 US presidential elections through fake social media accounts.

Snowden’s conscience was terribly shaken when he saw an Indonesian father with a little boy in his lap caught in the “surveillance dragnet,” and they reminded him of his own father and himself. Ultimately, Snowden decided to contact the media and narrowed down a list of journalists already targeted by the state, such as Laura Poitras (documentarian), Glenn Greenwald (the Guardian), and others. About copying the NSA archives, Snowden reminds readers that he also wanted to avoid unnecessary damage to the NSA, “I am going to refrain from publishing how exactly I went about my own writing – my own copying and encryption – so that the NSA will be standing tomorrow.” Snowden met Laura, Glenn and other journalists in Hong-Kong and briefed them about the unethical aspects of NSA programs. He destroyed his access to the archives after passing them on to the journalists.

In its later parts, the book reads like a spy thriller. Julian Assange, another whistleblower, with whom Snowden disagrees on some issues, tried to help him to evade capture. Sarah Harrison, editor for Wiki-Leaks, accompanied Snowden during his flight to Moscow. Snowden has been labeled a spy for living in Moscow. He had already destroyed all the access to the archives to assist any government and avoid any manipulation by Russian Intelligence. The truth is that after passing information in Hong Kong to American journalists, Snowden was on the way to Equador to seek asylum, but John Kerry canceled his passport while Snowden was on a layover in Moscow. The Russian Federation would be the last choice for United States as a refuge for their former intelligence officer. This proved that the forty days layover in Moscow was planned neither by the United States nor by Edward Snowden himself. Most world governments would not dare upset the US by supporting Snowden. The president of Bolivia, Eva Morales spoke in favor of providing asylum to Snowden while attending a conference of gas exporting countries in Moscow. The next day, while returning to Bolivia, Morales was denied airspace by Spain, France and Italy due to the suspicion that Snowden was onboard. The plane was forced into an emergency landing. Much to the humiliation of Latin America, American officials walked through the plane only to find that Snowden wasn’t onboard.

Permanent Record is an easy read but some explanations related to software and technology can give the reader a hard time. The book is also about introspection, self-realization, love, and freedom. Privacy like freedom of speech is a contested concept. Nonetheless, Snowden’s disclosure generated debate and “had caused the government to change certain laws regarding surveillance or convinced the courts to strike down mass surveillance as illegal.” Encryption features were introduced on platforms such as WhatsApp. Snowden became an enemy of the state just for defending Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Right to Privacy provided by the United States’ constitution. As Nietzsche once said, “people whom we cannot tolerate, we try to make suspect.”

Rashid Abbasi, PhD scholar (International Studies), Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. Email:


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