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Edward Snowden's permanent record

Permanent Record is the story of the randomness, the unscrupulousness and the vehemence with which the post-9/11 US governments set up a worldwide surveillance mechanism

By Sumit Chakrabarti
  • Published 13.12.19, 12:24 PM
  • Updated 13.12.19, 12:24 PM
  • 3 mins read
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An agent with top-secret clearance, first with the CIA and consequently with the NSA, Snowden unpacks, through detailed explanations and minute elaborations of the technological strategies used, the project of surveillance (Shutterstock)

The cold, expressionless eyes of Edward Snowden on the cover of Permanent Record suitably capture the deadpan tone with which he tells his story for most of the book. The narrative, tedious and slow, excruciatingly quotidian for the most part, is not your regular Cold-War spy thriller, riveting in its tinkertailorness, that barely lets the reader catch her breath between political intrigue and the randomness of murders. Snowden’s narrative is perhaps a metaphorical assertion of the boredom of spy-life, and the fact that at the heart of the world of snooping or spying is the willingness of an unimaginative and mostly unproductive mind that can perform endless repetitive chores for days on end. A mind trained mostly on facts and figures and obsessed with technology, Snowden paints to perfection the humdrum of growing up in suburban America, in a middle-class household, born to uninspiring government-employee parents. In fact, if it were not for his being one of the most celebrated whistle-blowers of our time, one would rarely be interested in the first half of the book — a rambling, eminently forgettable, account of an ordinary life. It is perhaps his perseverance in the face of such boredom that led Snowden to be so good in his job, and to successfully execute the desired coup.

An agent with top-secret clearance, first with the CIA and consequently with the NSA, Snowden unpacks, through detailed explanations and minute elaborations of the technological strategies used, the project of surveillance that the government of the United States of America had unleashed surreptitiously on its own citizens and on most of the world. Much of Permanent Record is the story of the randomness, the unscrupulousness and the vehemence with which the post-9/11 US governments set up this worldwide surveillance mechanism, and much of this with the help of private contractors. As an employee, initially of Perot Systems and then of Dell, in his twenties, and techno-smart, Snowden was hired by the NSA as a system-administrator or ‘sysadmin’ within what they called the Intelligence Community or the IC: “I occupied one of the most unexpectedly omniscient positions in the Intelligence Community — toward the bottom rung of the managerial ladder, but high atop heaven in terms of access... Was there anyone this machine could not surveil? Was there anywhere this machine could not go?” In the course of his journey across the world as a secret agent, Snowden discovers the fundamentally American nature of the internet: “The cables and satellites, the servers and towers — so much of the infrastructure of the Internet is under US control that over 90 percent of the world’s Internet traffic passes through technologies developed, owned, and/or operated by the American government and American businesses, most of which are physically located on American territory.” His curiosity stoked, and being technologically skilled, Snowden delved deeper into the machinations of the National Security Agency. As a sysadmin, more or less all secrets passed through him but, hierarchically in the lower rungs, he was not one of the decision-makers, and hence was paid little attention. He was just a contractual employee, skilled at his job. Secure in his anonymity, Snowden discovers how ‘science fact’ was stranger than science fiction. The interface at the NSA facility allowed him to “type in pretty much anyone’s address, telephone number, or IP address... You could read their emails, their browser history, their search history, their social media postings, everything... It was like watching an autocomplete... But the intelligence behind that typing wasn’t artificial but human: this was a humancomplete”. What with all the China-bashing in the media across the US, the critique of its anti-democratic and totalitarian regimes, in all the material on China that Snowden could access, he could only see a reflection of America: “What China was doing publicly to its own citizens, America might be — could be — doing secretly to the world”.

Rattled by such revelations and conscious of the implications of such pervasive human rights violation by the US department of state, Snowden goes back to reading the Constitution. The pages assert without ambiguity that the Bill of Rights and the first ten amendments “were all deliberately, carefully designed to create inefficiencies and hamper the government’s ability to exercise its power and conduct surveillance”. The government, realized Snowden, had “hacked the Constitution”.

Snowden decided to be a whistle-blower, and entered the annals of history. The last few pages of the book read like a thriller with Snowden moving frantically from one place to the other in search of asylum, till he is forced to stay back in Moscow. Permanent Record is an important document that elaborately explains the traps of the cyberworld for the lay reader. It is both a caveat and a sigh of despair at the pervasive and indomitable nature of cyber-surveillance. It is also a cryptological disclosure of a neo-imperial dystopia that is the world we inhabit: “If at any point during your journey through this book you paused for a moment over a term you wanted to clarify or investigate further and typed it into a search engine — and if that term happened to be in some way suspicious, a term like XKEYSCORE, for example — then congrats: you’re in the system, a victim of your own curiosity.” Scary.

Permanent Record by Edward Snowden, Pan Macmillan, Rs 699