By Libby Cherry
Edward Snowden, Macmillan, 2019
In the preface to his closet drama Prometheus Unbound (a liberal reworking of Aeschylus’ play), Percy Bysshe Shelley observes that variation between tellings of myths is, far from a violation of their integrity, essential to the tragic genre: ‘the Greek tragic writers, in selecting as their subject any portion of their national history or mythology, employed in their treatment of it a certain arbitrary discretion.’ Historical material is worked upon and unavoidably altered not only by the ‘uncommunicated lightning’ of the author’s own mind, but the ‘moral and intellectual conditions of the minds among which they have been produced’. Ancient myth becomes eternal story only through being fashioned anew, reflecting the concerns and preoccupations of the society at large.
Whistleblower Edward Snowden takes a similar approach in his memoir Permanent Record, as he merges a peculiar brand of late-twentieth century American identity with tales of ancient hubris. He recollects, as a child, reading Bullfinch’s Mythology and noting ‘this gang of gods and goddesses who spent most of their infinite existence fighting with each other and spying on the business of humanity’. When they chose to ‘investigate and meddle’ it was ‘often a disaster – someone always drowned, or was struck by lightning, or was turned into a tree – whenever the immortals sought to impose their will and interfere in mortal affairs.’
These analogies between baby Ed’s bedtime stories and the systematic capture and storage of global citizens’ data by their respective governments often verge on the glib, but the message is clear: the US and the UK government used their powers for ill, without thinking about collateral damage. While perhaps facile, these linkages become key in his depiction of the ethical complexities raised by his work: another iteration on a similar theme takes place in his description of the ‘Frankenstein effect’ which he experienced while working at the CIA base at the American Swiss embassy:
In Geneva, in the same landscape where Mary Shelley’s creature ran amok, America was busy creating a network that would eventually take on a life and mission of its own and wreck havoc on the lives of its creators – mine very much included.
Yet the co-option of literary reference, and even his own childhood memories, points to a perhaps more tragic reality of Snowden’s fate. In 2013, he decided to leak confidential National Security Agency (NSA) documents to journalists Glenn Greenwald of the US Guardian and Laura Poitras of the Washington Post. In the days that followed their first meeting in an anonymous hotel room in Hong Kong – a ‘reasonably liberal world’ out of reach of US interference – the journalists broke a sequence of stories that culminated in the release of a video interview with Snowden himself. If there had been any doubts about the credibility of these stories, the low-budget recording of a wan, tired looking young man quickly dispelled them. In the moment of global visibility, Snowden’s reach drastically expanded as his freedom proportionately shrunk.
Snowden made the journalists’ stories – but the stories also made him. The abundance of allusions, merging universal reference and highly personal youthful recollection, is testament to how the entirety of his life and its influences have been re-directed, reshaped and re-signified by his decision to take a stance against surveillance. In a sense, his memoir is less about him and more about using his life and experiences as another language to convey to the wider public the dangers of government surveillance. Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian at the time of the revelations, said in conversation with the Oxford Review of Books that he believes the book is evidence that Snowden has moved on. I am not convinced.
Rusbridger met the whistleblower three times in Moscow as a ‘duty of care’. He recalls the ‘slightly obsessive’ discussion Snowden would initiate about national surveillance: he wouldn’t speak about anything else. ‘I saw him in 2015, 2016, and in 2017 – and in 2016 I remember thinking actually I’ve heard all this before.’ It is not by accident that the term ‘Permanent Record’ refers both to the NSA’s practice of storing of data indefinitely and his own autobiography.
Modern Prometheus or not, the seemingly universal aspect of Snowden’s revelations is equally balanced by their completely unprecedented nature. Although Rusbridger had previously worked with Julian Assange of Wikileaks over information supplied by whistleblower Chelsea Manning, systemic spying of this kind had never previously been hinted at.
‘The story was already getting huge pickup because no one had ever seen documents like this before,’ Rusbridger recalled. ‘So it was front page in all the big American newspapers and all around the world because people were saying, “is it true that these large internet giants are collaborating with the government? Or is the story that the US government has gone behind their backs?” At that stage, I don’t think we could get straight answers.’
Snowden illustrates two different methods of surveillance used both by Special Source Operations division of the NSA in the US and GCHQ in the UK. The NSA’s PRISM programme and the UK’s Tempora programme allowed spying agencies access to data stored on platforms including Yahoo!, Google, Facebook, YouTube and Skype, enabling them to collect their clients’ emails, internet searches, photos and video chats. The other, ‘arguably even more invasive’, according to Snowden, is a set of strategies called Upstream collection. Instead of going through platforms, data could be siphoned off through the infrastructure of the internet itself, from undersea fibre-optic cables, satellites and routers.
The tools of the NSA surveillance are the ominously named ‘TURMOIL’ and ‘TURBINE’. Snowden describes the former as a ‘guard’, waiting for ‘suspicious’ content. If flagged, the request is turned over to ‘TURBINE’. Depending on the perceived severity of the request, ‘TURBINE’ will find an appropriate ‘exploit’ or malware to send to the recipient. Once on the computer, the malware gives the NSA access to ‘your entire digital life.’ All of this data was put into a database called ‘XKEYSCORE’ from which analysts could extract data the moment it was collected.
The US’s surveillance programme, with its newfound capabilities, generated an accompanying new vocabulary: ‘HUMINT’, ‘STELLARWIND’, ‘STLW’. But it is not just random acronyms that take on new significance. Snowden spends time agonising over the ‘lexical sophistry’ of the US government, who changed the meaning of ‘basic English words’ to render their actions ‘legal’. Ironically, while supposedly enacting the law, the government was bending its very definitions:
The NSA could collect whatever communications records it wanted to, without having to get a warrant, because it could only be said to have acquired or obtained them, in the legal sense, if and when the agency ‘searched for and retrieved’ them from the database ... if communications records would only be considered definitively ‘obtained’ once they were used, they could remain ‘unobtained’ but collected in storage forever.
It is rare that we see linguistic violation as criminal, and these lexical distortions do not come close to the flagrant lies that we encounter on an almost daily basis from our national leaders. Yet it is just one of the many ways in which Snowden builds up his ethical case throughout the book: in a debate which is often turned into a binary discussion of privacy for individuals versus security for our nation, Snowden complicates the ground of moral problematism in the behaviour of spying. It isn’t just spying per se that gives grounds for outrage, but the various moral boundaries that are crossed in order to facilitate it. If the government can bend the words of the law on this occasion, what is to stop them applying this principle to other sectors of society? What is the boundary between ‘interrogation’ and torture, a ‘detention centre’ and a concentration camp?
With legal loyalty effectively meaningless, Snowden appeals to other, more universal values to generate ethical outrage toward mass surveillance. This new form of morality originates in his dual identity: an American citizen of the internet. America and the internet are portrayed as two distinct, but intimately related, cultures, with their own sets of behaviours, principles and ideals. Mass surveillance, Snowden makes clear, is in direct violation of both.
Although cyberspace is famous for its antipatriotic anarchy, Snowden grounds his conceptions of his home country and the internet in one shared principle: freedom. He describes a childhood where he was taught the ‘lesson in the principle of self-reliance’ from his father’s handiness with a toolkit, and paints his American ancestry as built on tolerance and liberty. Though in his later years, he may be no more than one of the ‘young hackers’ contracted en masse into the Intelligence Community with little to no patriotic training, he goes out of his way to stress his family’s rootedness in Yankee soil. His mother’s family are ‘pure Pilgrim’, arriving on the Mayflower, while his father’s ancestor, Richard Snowden, a British army major and a Quaker who set sail for America in 1658, left traces of his entrepreneurial success all over Anne Arundel.
It is easy to draw parallels between this meritocratic American Dream that Snowden nostalgically dwells on and his experiences of the early internet. This internet – ‘the creative Web’ as Snowden calls it – is long gone, with most users operated through a standard ‘Facebook page and a Gmail account’. However, in these early days, it was a very different place. Like his ancestors who fled the oppressive British state, Snowden describes the ‘dissociative opportunities’ of being online, a chance to escape from your identity and the associated prejudices against it:
The ability to reinvent ourselves meant that we never had to close our minds by picking sides, or close ranks out of fear of doing irreparable harm to our reputations. Mistakes that were swiftly punished but swiftly rectified allowed both the community and the ‘offender’ to move on. To me, and to many, this felt like freedom … it protected us by forgetting our transgressions and forgiving our sins.
Doubtless Snowden’s narrative of the American Dream may seem more than a little clichéd, and while he informs us of the suffering of his ancestors (‘legend has it that the British killed their POWs by forcing them to eat gruel laced with ground glass’), he elides the desecration and violence to the indigenous population that is the darker side of this boundless American meritocracy. He does concede, however, that the early internet was ‘almost uniformly male, heterosexual, and hormonally charged’.
Nevertheless, while it might be difficult to accept the pseudo-utopias that Snowden attempts to craft, they operate as subtle but powerful methods by which to turn the excuse for mass surveillance on its head. The fresh start that his family was given in America and the consistent reinvention is anathema to the permanent record on every individual established by the IC’s data collection. As Snowden puts it:
At any point, the government could dig through the past communications of anyone it wanted to victimise in search of a crime (and everybody’s communications contain evidence of something). At any point, for all perpetuity, any new administration – any future rogue head of the NSA – could just show up to work and, as easily as flicking a switch, instantly track everybody with a phone or computer, know who they were, where they were, what they were doing with whom, and what they had ever done in the past.
From this angle, Snowden is not some rogue anarchist trying to disrupt the national security of America. Rather, he is trying to stop his nation from losing its own self-reliant, liberty-loving identity. He quotes the Fourth Amendment: ‘the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.’ In the twenty-first century, under the US surveillance regime, even the smallest foray onto the internet is worthy of having this fundamental right of privacy revoked.
Snowden does not dwell too long on the aftermath of his revelations. He mentions the 2015 success of ACLU v. Clapper, a case that wanted to prove that the NSA’s collection of phone records was illegal. For the first time, the linguistic trickery of the IC didn’t work: ‘in the court’s opinion, the government’s definition of “relevant” was so expansive as to be virtually meaningless.’ The USA Freedom Act amended the Patriot Act to specifically ban the collection of phone records.
For journalists in the UK, the response was immediate. Rusbridger recounts having a visit from no less than the cabinet secretary, Jeremy Heywood, who said:
‘This will have to stop and if you don’t stop we will make it stop and by the way we want to destroy all your computers.’ At that point I said that we disagreed, it was in the public interest and we’re going to publish this with the New York Times – they had all the stuff. We were happy to destroy our own computers but that wouldn’t stop publication.
However, skirmishes between the press and the government were not necessarily reflected in the response from the British public. As John Lanchester put in a article for the Guardian written shortly after the revelations, it was ‘greeted here with a weirdly echoing nonresponse’. Lanchester puts this down to a British focus on ‘wrongs’ rather than human ‘rights’. Without any details of crimes that had been explicitly caused by mass surveillance, the British public found little cause for complaint.
The question remains whether, in 2019, Snowden’s revelations show any sign of being heeded. We may be post-Cambridge Analytica, but there has not been any significant number of users abandoning Facebook. If anything, the scandal has done little more than provide a little self-reassurance that we could never be so influenced by targeted propaganda, no matter how good. Furthermore, it was the platforms that were most ruthlessly demonised, rather than the entities that abused them.
In October of this year, Home Secretary Priti Patel co-signed a letter to Facebook alongside ministers from Australia and the US, asking the platform to drop its plans to end-to-end encrypt all the messages sent through its service. Evidently, both Patel and Snowden recognised that encryption was ‘the only true protection against surveillance.’ While, for Patel, such encryption signifies a potential blind spot in our national security, for Snowden her request represents the definition of what he has warned and is still warning us about.
Yet the BBC’s coverage of the issue made little reference to the value of encryption. Rather, the focus surrounded the ‘lives and safety of our children’, which was allegedly being compromised by paedophiles using encrypted messages to distribute child pornography. The article quotes from the chief of police and the head of the NSPCC Tony Stower – ‘it’s an absolute scandal that Facebook is actively choosing to provide offenders with a way to hide in the shadows on their platform, seamlessly able to target, groom and abuse children completely undetected’ – and finishes with a link to a BBC investigation into how encrypted apps host criminals on the dark web. The bias of the article is clear: encryption equals the facilitating of a child-grooming underworld.
Rusbridger dodges my question about whether such reporting is symptomatic of a progovernment bias, instead preferring to lay the blame at a lack of technological expertise. He realises that few have noted how, just as encryption can be used for ill, so can the government’s ‘back-doors’. ‘If MI6 can do that than so can Al-Qaeda, or people who want to siphon off your bank account or blackmail you can too.’ As Snowden so often points out, in a digital age it is less the intentions behind, and more the scope of, our technology that we must consider.
This lack of expertise Rusbridger suggests can be extended to the government ministers themselves in charge of overseeing the country’s surveillance programmes. ‘You read Snowden, one of the most technologically literate people on the planet, struggling to work out the capabilities they had, and here you have a 72-year-old retired MP who has big buttons on his phone because he doesn’t know how to use it, and he’s meant to be overseeing this.’ The biggest challenge facing the age of surveillance is not so much battling an evil mastermind, but dealing with layers of incompetency and miseducation.
A consciousness of this knowledge-gap perhaps explains the fervent didacticism of Snowden’s book. Permanent Record is little more than the initial truths set out in the 2013 revelations, albeit cast in a more personal tone. The constant analogies, drawing on the moral principles bound up in our personal identity, seem like a desperate attempt to find a medium – any medium –to try and convey the importance of what is essentially a highly technical and dangerous situation. Now working for the Freedom of the Press Association, training journalists specifically to work on technical stories like his, Snowden’s focus on evangelising his cause is clear. Only when readers, journalists and policymakers gain a greater understanding of how these surveillance powers might be used can we move onto the more pressing question: how these hubristically self-destructive powers can be tamed.
LIBBY CHERRY reads English at Corpus Christi College. She doesn't read entrails.
Art by Isabella Lill