Permanent Record by Edward Snowden: Some Thoughts

This isn’t going to be a full review, more like a quick reflection having just finished it and an exploration of the entire system of government surveillance of the last two decades.

The book is well written, and acts as an autobiography of most of Snowden’s life, from his early childhood to the acts of whistle-blowing that ended his career and his escape to Russia. During the journey he explores how the US government has been corrupted by contractors, the panic after the 9/11 attacks,1 and the encroaching power of the Surveillance State in the post 9/11 world.

Snowden is 5 years my senior, but in the book feels decades older then me. The 1980s-2010s were astonishingly quickly changing times. He was able to join the Army shortly after 9/11, whereas I remember watching it unfold at school, as every class became a long news hour with the teachers discussing what it all meant. I remember the old modems, but was never a part of the old BBS of the 90s, my formative childhood moments were gaming on my N64 and playing Red Alert 2 on my PC, not the original NES.2 5 years is less then half a generation, but between the differences of childhood experience and the fact that he spent nearly no time in academia3 made him feel a generation older then me.

I remember vaguely paying attention to the Snowden affair when it happened, 7 years ago. I was in the middle of my PhD having just finished my qualifications, and didn’t care nearly as much about surveillance then I do now. I have vague memories of being not really surprised that the government was sweeping up anything it could get it’s hands on and remember hoping that the revelations would lead to some change: I still trusted Obama and the US government, at least partially. Looking back from the end of the decade, I the early 2010s were a surprisingly optimistic time.4 Between Occupy, the Arab Spring, and the financial crisis’s fallout, it seemed like there might be a sea of change that could remake the world for the better, especially after the horrors of the second Bush administration and the Iraq war.

I now look back at those times with detached cynicism. The sea of change never came. I know now that Obama was much worse then my privileged self had noticed. The Arab spring ended with totalitarianism and death, and although the Left was empowered by the Occupy protests, they led to no real policy changes. The financial crisis was wasted, and any semblance that the US government could be reformed ended with Trump.

The Snowden revelations did led to some minor changes, but the rot is deep and the structural factors that led to the abuses are still present. I suspect the main long term effects of them will be to harden the NSA and related agencies from additional whisteblowers while continuing to expand bulk collection. The position Snowden was in seemed quite special, and he had a lot of privileges as a sysadmin that I doubt the NSA continued to let exist. The recent stink about backdooring end to end encryption5 implies that the agencies are as data hungry as ever, and I’d be very surprised to learn that anything changed on the ground in the last 7 years. The fact that no one in power ended up on trial is the key takeaway that nothing was really done.

I don’t want to end on too much of a sour note. Proof that bulk collection was happening caused a lot of people to be more wary, and Snowden seems to have escaped the US mostly unharmed, for now. I’m not convinced that a system of mass surveillance is capable of creating a stable society, so there is some hope for the future. But the next few decades will probably have more government overreach rather then less, especially in the US. One of the reasons I want to work in the cryptocurrency space, despite the scams, is that many are working on things that provide actual privacy.6 It is unknown if encryption and all its offspring will be strong enough to create a space outside of mass surveillance, but since no legislative solution seems to be on the horizon, I feel like I have to try. You have to go to war with the systems you have, not the systems you wish you had, after all.

  1. With nearly 20 years of hindsight we can see they were the most successful attacks in history, causing radical changes in a major world power that made nearly everyone worse off
  2. Although I eventually ended up with an SNES and NES as well
  3. Compared to me going all the way through an extra long PhD
  4. At least for me
  5. One of the few things that can actually defeat bulk collection/mass surveillance
  6. Yes, I am well aware of the privacy issues in Bitcoin, but it is both more private then the current banking system if used properly (not easy to do, I readily admit), and is not the only effort in the space to improve privacy