Permanent Record – the title refers to the data exhaust of our modern lives, stored indefinitely by governments and corporations – is a thoughtful and elegantly written book, with a nice line in tech-inflected imagery... Questions have long been raised – and not only by the predictably furious CIA and NSA leadership – about Snowden’s exact relationship with the Russian security services during his six-year “exile” there. Unarguably his presence has been a PR coup for Vladimir Putin, whose name is not mentioned in the book. Nor does Snowden address the fact – at least, according to the US director of national intelligence in 2014 – that many of the secret files he copied related not to domestic surveillance at all but to America’s global military operations. Instead, he says he rejected a frank attempt at recruitment by Russia’s security agency, the FSB, on his initial arrival in the country, and that’s the last we hear of spies.
Permanent Record seems to have been written reluctantly: a memoir by a celebrity dissident dedicated to the cause of digital privacy. There were surely market incentives for the book to take the form it has: publishers prefer personal revelations to manifestos. But for all the storytelling it is a manifesto all the same. The innocent boy grows up in a digital paradise that becomes a fallen world when government and capital learn how to control it. Snowden’s reticence about himself dates to high school. Towards the end of his freshman year his English class was given the assignment: ‘Please produce an autobiographical statement of no fewer than a thousand words.’
It tells the story of how an intense, bright, serious boy from a patriotic, quasi-military family (father in the coast guard, mother working as a clerk at the National Security Agency) came to tell the world how his beloved country’s intelligence services had covertly pivoted from protection to mass surveillance in the name of national security. And in the process did us a great service...The closing part of the book is a riveting account of the way Snowden went about acquiring documentary evidence of the tools and approaches that the NSA developed in order to comply with the “never again” orders they had received from their political masters in the wake of 9/11. He turned out to be astute and careful in both amassing the material and in choosing who his journalistic partners in the revelatory enterprise should be. He is also refreshingly frank about the emotional torment that this secretive project imposed on him, particularly his anguish at having suddenly to abandon his beloved girlfriend, Lindsay, without being able to give her any warning of what he was about to do. If anybody thinks that whistleblowing is easy, then they haven’t ever done it.
A significant part of the book is a boilerplate memoir of a short life (Snowden was born in 1983) written in brisk style and giving very little away. These bits of biography are only revealing if you doubted that a person who managed to access and smuggle out some of the most sensitive data held by the US National Security Agency (NSA) would be anything other than a talented geek.... He may be a whistleblower, but he is a carefully curated, fabulously narcissistic one. And to whom is he answerable? “My name is Edward Joseph Snowden. I used to work for the government. Now I work for the public,” he proclaims. But how did the public decide that they wanted him to work for them?
in forcing the NSA to bring its mass surveillance dirty secret into the open, Snowden may unwittingly have done the agency a favour. As for the book, which lacks many revelations or much sense of the wider context of the author’s actions, it will be most satisfying to lovers of technology, less so to the general reader.
Regret is a recurring theme. Snowden is not sorry for what he did, but he laments the death of the internet he grew up with, and warns of dangers ahead, as artificial intelligence is fused with surveillance capabilities. If he is angry at his own predicament, it doesn’t show, but there is anger, and it comes in unexpected flashes... He also seems exasperated by people who don’t try to understand the capabilities that can now be wielded against them. Snowden calls this the “tyranny of not understanding the technology” – a dig at anyone who uses a smartphone, or a computer, without wondering how the freedom it gives them might also make them vulnerable. In his own gentle way, perhaps Snowden is throwing down the gauntlet.
“Permanent Record” is a riveting account and a curious artifact. The book is unlikely to change anyone’s mind about Snowden, but when it comes to privacy and speech and the Constitution, his story clarifies the stakes. For someone who worked in the intelligence community, the very idea of an autobiography feels uncomfortable. “It’s hard to have spent so much of my life trying to avoid identification,” he writes, “only to turn around completely and share ‘personal disclosures’ in a book.”...Without belaboring his points, Snowden pushes the reader to reflect more seriously on what every American should be asking already. What does it mean to have the data of our lives collected and stored on file, ready to be accessed — not just now, by whatever administration happens to be in office at the moment, but potentially forever? Should such sensitive work be outsourced to private contractors? What entails effective “oversight” if the public is kept in the dark? When can concerns about “national security” slip into bids for unchecked power?