I wasn’t just a brain in a jar

Christian Lorentzen

  • Permanent Record by Edward Snowden
    Macmillan, 339 pp, £20.00, September, ISBN 978 1 5290 3565 0

Edward Snowden was born in the summer of 1983. Around this time, the US Defence Department split its computer network into MILNET, an internal military branch, and a public branch, which we now know as the internet. Home computers were becoming pervasive; the Commodore 64 was selling in the millions. One day Snowden’s father brought one home, connected it to the TV set, and the toddler Eddie noticed that his father was now controlling what was happening on the screen. The boy sat on his father’s lap and watched him pilot a helicopter in the living room: he was playing the flight simulator game Choplifter! Six-year-old Eddie received a Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas in 1989, and his ‘real education’ began. He learned about the ‘invisible wall’, the rule that prevents a player of Super Mario Bros from going backwards in a game that moves, like words on a page, strictly from left to right. There is no reversing time. The leaker of government documents can’t go home again.

Everyone grows up with computers now, and many people were born in 1983 – e.g. Amy Winehouse and Kim Jong-un – but, however atypical Snowden was in other ways, this timing was crucial. A little older and he wouldn’t have encountered the internet until adulthood; a little younger and the internet he found would have been the corporate version we have now. His family got its first modem in 1992, when connections were slow, internet users pseudonymous, and the rooms where they chatted self-regulating and unmonitored. It was a zone of freedom and forgiveness where identities could be picked up and discarded without consequence. Say something silly or stupid and you could simply change your handle and join the other chatroom denizens in mocking your former self. Snowden calls the efforts of governments and businesses to link online personas to legal identities – efforts supported by the rise of Facebook, and its insistence that users go by their real names – ‘the greatest iniquity in digital history’.

1983 also saw the release of WarGames, the film that turned the figure of the teenage hacker, played by Matthew Broderick, into a hero. Broderick’s character starts by using his modem to tweak his high school grades; soon he is infiltrating government computer systems and averting nuclear disaster. The film further disseminated the already widespread idea that computer networks had grown too complex and powerful for the government to control; Reagan watched it, and it’s said to have led to the first presidential directive on cybersecurity. That directive – which charged the National Security Agency with the task of monitoring and protecting information transmitted by US military, business and personal computers – was soon overridden by Democrats in Congress: the NSA had been founded, in 1952, to intercept foreign communications and was officially prohibited from spying on Americans. This muddling of its mission would become part of the story of Snowden’s life.

Snowden’s significant hack, as a teenager, was of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Alarmed by an article he had read about the history of the US nuclear weapons programme, he went to the lab’s website – and was excited to see that it had an open directory structure. He didn’t find instructions on how to build a nuclear bomb, which were anyhow available elsewhere on the web, but he did find internal memos and information on personnel not meant for public consumption. He called the lab and left a voicemail message informing the authorities of the lab’s vulnerability. Weeks went by and he kept checking the site to see if the hole had been plugged. Then one afternoon the phone rang; his mother answered and the colour left her face. ‘What did you do?’ she asked her son, and handed him the receiver. An IT worker from Los Alamos was on the line. He thanked ‘Mr Snowden’ for his efforts, asked if he was interested in a job, and told him to get in touch when he turned 18. His mother didn’t punish him.

The family was wrapped in the Stars and Stripes. Snowden’s father, Lonnie, was an electronics instructor for the Coast Guard, and the boy’s first nine years were spent in the port town of Elizabeth City, North Carolina. His mother, Wendy, was descended from two passengers on the Mayflower: Priscilla Mullins, ‘the only single woman of marriageable age in the whole first generation of the Plymouth Colony’, and the ship’s cooper, John Alden, whom she chose over the colony’s military supremo, Commander Myles Standish – an episode that became the subject of a poem by Longfellow. The maternal line included heroes of the War of Independence and cousins who fought on opposing sides in the Civil War, all the way down to Wendy’s father, a Coast Guard admiral. The Snowdens were 17th-century Quaker settlers in Maryland and the name was still remembered on street signs when the family moved there in 1992: Lon had been transferred to a new post, and Wendy took a job at the NSA, where she administered pension benefits. Both parents had top security clearances. Most of their neighbours worked for the government or the military and at barbecues nobody talked about their job. Normality was cover.

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.’

I was being ordered by strangers to divulge my thoughts on perhaps the only subject on which I didn’t have any thoughts: the subject of me, whoever he was. I just couldn’t do it. I was blocked. I didn’t turn anything in and received an Incomplete.

The boy’s parents were getting divorced. Home was now a place of secrets, lies and strife. Soon enough the house would be sold, and the boy would move into a condominium with his mother and sister. He was confused and sullen and blamed himself. He stopped answering to ‘Eddie’ and became ‘Ed’. He stopped describing what he was doing at the computer as ‘playing’ and started to call it ‘working’. This was where he believed his real life was taking place, a secret life lived on bulletin boards, where he chatted and messaged anonymously with adult strangers who advised him on such questions as how to build his own computer or how to make this chipset work with that motherboard. Although he doesn’t go into it, all this must have marked him as a ‘geek’ or a ‘nerd’ among his peers at a time when those words still carried a stigma among children. The mixture of irony and smugness that ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ now convey is a recent phenomenon, the consequence of their having been reappropriated by tech workers, fans of comic book movies and other yuppies who are emboldened by the millions or billions of dollars that the most successful nerds bring in. While his classmates were agonising over who was going to make the team or who had the right sneakers, Snowden was daydreaming about getting back to his Compaq, dialling up and logging on. Online was a higher plane, even if much of it was gaming. When he could get away with it, he stayed up all night in front of the screen.

He had little taste for school, ‘an illegitimate system’ that ‘wouldn’t recognise any legitimate dissent’. He remembers his teachers as arbitrary tyrants who taught classes about democracy but couldn’t be voted out of their jobs by their students. At a certain point he realised he could still get Bs or Cs without turning in any of his homework (worth only 5 per cent of the final grade) by aceing his quizzes and earning maximum points for class participation. He wanted to spend all his available time at the computer. When a teacher asked him why he wasn’t doing any homework, he was honest and explained his system (or ‘hack’, as he calls it). The school’s administrators reacted by changing the rules so that failure to turn in a certain number of assignments automatically resulted in a failing grade. But Snowden wasn’t long for high school in any case. As a sophomore he contracted mononucleosis, missed four months of classes and was told he would have to repeat the year. He dropped out instead and enrolled at a community college, where he pursued a General Educational Development degree.

Here the book moves away from the sensuous evocation of a boy’s online dreamworld to describe the grittier life of the IT professional. The outlines of the story are familiar enough, since Snowden has been a subject of journalistic scrutiny for years and a hero of movies, including Oliver Stone’s somewhat misleading biopic. Snowden’s first job was as a web designer for a woman he had met in a Japanese class, a fellow anime enthusiast. They fell out after 9/11: he was all for the war on terror; she, a dove, moved to California. Snowden’s politics at the time go mostly unexamined: he calls them a ‘mash-up of the values I was raised with and the ideals I encountered online’. He was now 18, and it was common enough then for Americans to back Bush in his every undertaking. In this Snowden was little different from two of the last three Democratic presidential nominees or the editors of the New Yorker.

Snowden enlisted in the army. For his family this was a major rebellion: they were Coast Guard people and thought of the army leadership as ‘the crazy uncles of the US military’. His mother cried and his father told him he was wasting his technical talents. But he wanted ‘to be praised for and to succeed at something else – something that was harder for me. I wanted to show that I wasn’t just a brain in a jar; I was also heart and muscle.’ Before basic training he qualified to be a Special Forces sergeant through a programme called 18 X-Ray, which was designed to ‘augment the ranks of the small flexible units that were doing the hardest fighting in America’s increasingly shadowy and disparate wars’. One senses that the gamer in Snowden got the better of him here. He had hardly been a sporty child, and although he was fit, his build was slight. This was an advantage when it came to doing push-ups (not much to lift), but the regimen was withering. ‘The army makes its fighters by first training the fight out of them until they’re too weak to care, or to do anything besides obey.’ A few weeks into basic training, on a manoeuvre in the woods in boots that were too big for him, he slipped while trying to avoid a snake and broke his leg – an injury that threatened to derail him from the Special Forces track. On doctors’ advice he accepted an ‘administrative separation’ and left the army without dishonour; for its part, the army was free of any liability for a disability claim. They let him keep his crutches.

‘I was ready to face the facts,’ Snowden writes. ‘If I still had the urge to serve my country, and I most certainly did, then I’d have to serve it through my head and my hands – through computing.’ While laid up at his mother’s place he applied for Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information clearance, the type ‘required by positions with the top-tier agencies – CIA and NSA’. He worried about his online footprint:

the endless conveyor belt of stupid jingoistic things I’d said, and the even stupider misanthropic opinions I’d abandoned, in the process of growing up online. Specifically, I was worried about my chat logs and forum posts, all the supremely moronic commentary that I’d sprayed across a score of gaming and hacker sites. Writing pseudonymously had meant writing freely, but often thoughtlessly. And since a major aspect of early internet culture was competing with others to say the most inflammatory thing, I’d never hesitate to advocate, say, bombing a country that taxed video games, or corralling people who didn’t like anime into re-education camps. Nobody on those sites took any of it seriously, least of all myself.

He dreaded having to explain himself ‘to a grey-haired man in horn-rimmed glasses peering over a giant folder labelled PERMANENT RECORD’. He was repelled by the ‘overheated, hormonal opinions’ of his younger self. He considered coding a script that would programatically wipe everything he’d written from every site but decided against it: he ‘didn’t want to live in a world where everyone had to pretend that they were perfect’. There’s a little naivety here. ‘We can’t erase the things that shame us, or the ways we’ve shamed ourselves, online. All we can do is control our reactions – whether we let the past oppress us, or accept its lessons, grow, and move on.’ I agree with the sentiment, but the question is how to define ‘we’. Employees of the New York Times may be ready to own up to shameful jokes they made as undergraduates, but that does not stop right-wing operatives combing through their social media trails in an attempt to get them fired. A general amnesty for having once been an asshole doesn’t seem to be on the cards. As for Snowden, he passed his polygraph and got his clearance. The intemperate things he’d said online and his teenage hack of the Los Alamos lab were never discussed. Around this time he also met his girlfriend, Lindsay, through the website HotOrNot.com: he rated her a ten; she gave him an eight. Now they’re married, and unashamed of their dating profiles.

*

At this point the thriller plot begins its gradual build-up, with Snowden’s journey eventually taking him around the world: Geneva, Tokyo, Hawaii, Hong Kong, Moscow. Crucially, at an early stage, Snowden became a systems administrator, rather than a software or network specialist. This would lead him to an ‘intense engagement with the deepest levels of integration of computing technology’: the job was to look at the whole picture while others concerned themselves with parts. Then there were the technicalities of his employment status. Snowden explains at some length the combination of legislative and budgetary incentives that have caused the US intelligence community to rely on private contractors in ever larger numbers at the expense of career civil servants. The law puts a cap on the number of permanent employees the agencies can hire, but by using temporary contractors they can keep their manpower elastic as their budgets expand. There are no pensions for such workers but the pay tends to be much better and – as with bureaucrats and lawmakers who line their pockets while out of office – a revolving door allows contractors to make good money in the private sector once they have a security clearance: a classic neoliberal mix of precarity and profiteering. In order to get that clearance you need first to work for the government, but most of its hires quickly leave for a private employer that will contract them back to federal agencies. There’s some bitterness in Snowden’s explanation; he wasn’t able to serve his country the way his father and grandfather had: ‘The federal government was less the ultimate authority than the ultimate client.’ Then there’s the fact that after his leaks he was smeared in the press for his status as a mere contractor, as if he were a fly-by-night temp rather than a career cyberspy.

The career began on the night shift as a systems administrator for the NSA’s new Centre for Advanced Study of Language. A joint project with the University of Maryland, the centre wasn’t yet operational so there wasn’t much to do. Bored, Snowden went to a job fair and, as a nominal employee of the technology company Cosmo, he became a subcontractor for the CIA at its headquarters in McLean, Virginia (Langley is a historical holdover used by Hollywood). During the job interview his corporate manager, whom he would never see again, talked up his salary requirements because it would raise the firm’s fees. His fellow trainees were all ‘computer dudes’ with tattoos, dyed hair and piercings. The scene of a gaggle of wan hipster freaks being handed responsibility for the American spy cult’s technostructure lends an air of inevitability to Snowden’s future revelations.

After nine months in McLean, Snowden was itinerant. He had a stint at a training facility in rural Virginia for ‘commo guys’ being sent abroad, then applied for a post in Iraq or Afghanistan. He was assigned instead to Geneva, possibly because he had protested against the working conditions he and his fellow trainees endured (no overtime, no leave, being put up in a crumbling Comfort Inn). In Switzerland he had his first and only experience of human intelligence work, after tipping off his commanding officer about the potential usefulness of a Saudi banker he had met at a dinner party. The boss responded by taking the banker out, getting him loaded and then tipping off the police that he was driving home drunk. When the man’s licence was suspended and he was fined, the agent offered him a loan and a daily lift to his office so that his superiors wouldn’t find out about his arrest. But the banker refused to be turned and moved back to Saudi Arabia. ‘It was a waste,’ Snowden writes, ‘which I myself had put in motion and was powerless to stop.’

In 2009 he moved to Tokyo to work at the NSA’s Pacific Technical Centre, a facility tasked with intercepting communications in the region and sharing some of the resulting intelligence with governments friendly to the US. He was responsible for designing a backup system that would allow the NSA to transmit its data efficiently and store it for as long as possible. Ideally it would be stored for ever: ‘The NSA’s conventional wisdom was that there was no point in collecting anything unless they could store it until it was useful, and there was no way to predict when exactly that would be.’ While there, he was also assigned to deliver a talk at a conference on countersurveillance measures being taken against China, a state whose cyber capabilities were ‘mind-boggling’. He believed there was a crucial distinction between China and America, which condemned the one and redeemed the other: in principle, the US never used its powers of surveillance against its own citizens, except at times of emergency. But then came news that Obama, for whom his girlfriend had campaigned, had refused to curtail the Bush-era programme of warrantless wiretapping that targeted US citizens in their communications with foreigners. Snowden found this troubling.

When the classified version of the 2009 Report on the President’s Surveillance Programme came to his attention – it was his job as a sysadmin to wipe it from a low-security folder where it didn’t belong – he learned that what had been hidden from the public (in the unclassified version of the report) was a project codenamed STELLARWIND, which involved the bulk collection of internet communications:

The US government was developing the capacity of an eternal law enforcement agency. At any time, 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 anybody with a phone or a computer, know who they were, where they were, what they were doing with whom, and what they had ever done in the past.

Snowden makes the case that metadata – the information that our devices generate about what we do with them and what they do without our awareness – is ‘not some benign abstraction, but the very essence of content: it is precisely the first line of information that the party surveilling you requires.’ After learning of STELLARWIND, Snowden fell into a depression: ‘I felt far from home, but monitored. I felt more adult than ever, but also cursed with the knowledge that all of us had been reduced to something like children, who’d been forced to live the rest of our lives under omniscient parental supervision.’

During a brief return to Washington, after four years abroad, Snowden found that he and Lindsay were suddenly prosperous: they moved into a three-storey townhouse and he wore nice suits. For Valentine’s Day he bought her the revolver she’d always wanted. (They were never exactly a pair of pious liberals.) But he noticed that appliance stores were now selling internet-connected ‘smart’ fridges. He inferred that the only true purpose of such developments could be to enable the corporate collection of household data, yet everybody was signing up for it, avidly. The liberating internet of his youth was really gone, and now even the simplest visit online was a fraught activity. In his neighbourhood he noticed security cameras everywhere and licence-plate readers at every traffic light. He started imagining ‘a world in which all laws were totally enforced, automatically, by computers’, and ‘no policing algorithm would ever be programmed, even if it could be, towards leniency or forgiveness.’ He advised Lindsay to delete her Facebook account. ‘If I did that,’ she said, ‘I’d be giving up my art and abandoning my friends.’ He tried to tell her without telling her what he’d learned, and suggested she imagine a ‘Spreadsheet of Total Destruction’ with ‘every speck of information that could destroy your life’. She wouldn’t tell him what the most incriminating item on her list would be. He started having dizzy spells, falling off ladders, dropping spoons. It wasn’t just the paranoia. He was diagnosed with epilepsy.

The couple moved to Hawaii in 2012 mostly because of concern about his health: the climate and lifestyle would be good for him, and he could cycle to work at an NSA facility called the Tunnel, a converted aircraft factory that now served as a hub for the monitoring of communications between the continental US and Asia. He worked for the Office of Information Sharing, technically its only employee, administering the system that determined who could see which documents: ‘The NSA had made me the manager of document management … my job was to know what sharable information was out there.’ He says his decision to investigate NSA abuses came around the time of his 29th birthday, and rather than just copying documents he started reading them. He set up an automated ‘readboard’, a sort of internal news blog, that gathered agency documents and made them available to anyone with the proper security clearances and copied them to a server that Snowden managed. He soon learned of the existence and mechanics of the PRISM programme, which allowed the NSA to collect data from Microsoft, Google, Facebook et al via a FISA court order, and ‘upstream collection’, which

enabled the routine capturing of data directly from private-sector internet infrastructure – the switches and routers that shunt internet traffic worldwide via the satellites in orbit and the high-capacity fibre-optic cables that run under the ocean. This collection was managed by the NSA’s Special Sources Operation unit, which built secret wire-tapping equipment and embedded it inside the corporate facilities of obliging internet service providers around the world.

With upstream collection, the agency’s algorithms trawl through the vast body of collected data to hunt out evidence of particular activities deemed to be of interest to the NSA. This might be as simple as someone, somewhere, searching for a certain keyword – ‘protest’, say, or ‘bomb’. As soon as such activity is detected, users can be targeted with malware injected into their internet traffic that will allow the collection of the entirety of a device’s data: everything downloaded onto a phone, every call you make, every site you visit. Agency malfeasance had become inhuman, automatic, structural.

In the last stage of his investigation, after copying his files to data cards he smuggled into the office in a Rubik’s cube, Snowden took a new job in order to gain access to a program called XKEYSCORE, ‘a search engine that lets an analyst search through all the records of your life’. During a spell of training at NSA headquarters in Maryland, he witnessed analysts showing one another nudes of the subjects they monitored and engaging in LOVEINT, personal surveillance of their past or current lovers, an illegal activity but one for which no one has ever been prosecuted, because the analysts know how not to get caught – and because prosecuting them would reveal the extent of the agency’s surveillance capabilities and their potential for abuse. He looked through ‘the shared targeting folders of a “persona” analyst’ and found an Indonesian engineer who’d been watched because he’d applied for an academic job at a university in Iran. The man’s home videos with his young son reminded him of himself and his own father, and he suddenly realised that the documents he was about to leak would separate him from his family for ever.

*

Snowden had reason to believe that those leaks might have little impact. In the summer of 2004, James Risen and Eric Lichtblau of the New York Times had been ready to publish a report on the NSA’s Bush-era surveillance programme, including an aspect of STELLARWIND, but the administration put in calls to the paper’s editor, Bill Keller, and to its publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, suggesting that they halt publication in the interest of national security. By the time the report finally appeared, in December 2005, Bush had already been safely re-elected. More recently, the press had largely ignored stories hiding in plain sight: the construction by the NSA of a new massive data repository in Utah, which was covered only by the journalist James Bamford; and a talk at a public convention in New York by a top CIA technician who told journalists that ‘it is nearly within our grasp to compute on all human generated information’ – a statement that generated a single item in the Huffington Post. It was the drama of Snowden’s flight to Hong Kong, his personal explanations of the documents he had delivered to Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Ewan MacAskill, and the young stubbly face he put to the story in videos filmed in his hotel room, that caused his revelations to have the effect they did. What the world learned from Snowden from June 2013 onwards helped lead to the passing of US laws against the bulk collection of communications data, to encryption by default on iPhones and Android devices, and to the widespread encryption of web traffic (signified by the ‘https://’ that now prefaces almost all URLs). But laws only apply in the countries where they’re passed, and technologies, including modes of encryption, quickly become obsolete. Ignorance, apathy and laziness will leave most individuals open to whatever new forms of mass surveillance governments and corporations can invent. Those whose business is surveillance will always do what it takes to stay one step ahead.

In revealing everything he did, including his own identity, to the probable detriment of his health, wealth and sanity, Snowden was also violating his own privacy. Permanent Record takes that self-violation as far as it can go. About the other characters in his life – his parents, his colleagues, a fellow army trainee who tells him he’s about to go AWOL and then makes a run for it while in the latrine, an old-timer at CIA headquarters whose main job seems to have been to change a tape in an outdated recording system every night – there is just enough to provide the narrative with colour. Lindsay is an exception. One chapter includes her diary entries from the days when Snowden was a missing person, as the FBI harassed her and the press smeared her as a stripper on the basis of social media posts from her pole-dance fitness class. But really this is a book with a single hero. From the scene of the boy watching his father repair his Nintendo box at a Coast Guard base, to the scene of the man on the run teaching journalists how not to be spied on (seal your smartphone in a plastic bag and put it in the hotel room minifridge): out of all this a coherent character emerges, someone whose wonder at machines has, through his own mastery of them, turned into a kind of horror. Most of the rest of us still clutch them with giddiness, incomprehension at their workings, and an insatiable need for the next shiny thing that pops up on the screen.

At a lounge in Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow, where Snowden had fled as he tried to make his way to Ecuador, an FSB agent gave him a cold pitch to work for Russian intelligence. Snowden immediately cut him off; anyway, he’d already given all the documents away to journalists. The agent then informed him that his passport had become invalid during his flight from Hong Kong – a true airport thriller scene. (In his acknowledgments, Snowden thanks the novelist Joshua Cohen for ‘taking me to writing school’; Cohen’s 2015 novel Book of Numbers is about the ghostwriter of the memoir of a tech billionaire who leaves the grid, making the new book a case of life imitating fiction.) Snowden still faces three felony charges, two of them under the Espionage Act, under which the government can withhold public presentation of the evidence against the defendant by claiming the interests of national security. Obama declined to pardon him. In the wake of Russiagate, it’s common to hear people, even left-leaning journalists, speculate that Snowden has been a Russian agent all along, especially now that the US intelligence services have rebranded themselves as the strongest institutional branch of the #Resistance to the current president. Meanwhile the government’s machines of repression, those carefully cooled datacentres, hum along in Maryland, Utah and Hawaii.