Several years ago, as a PhD student I attended an international conference on information security. One of the keynote speakers, a well-respected professor from Germany, commented with a smile that privacy would soon be reduced to little more than “an academic concept.” He had had this eureka moment while walking in London one day and realising that, since there were so many surveillance cameras around, it was near impossible to even pick one’s nose in public without the act being captured for posterity. The audience chuckled; it was a moment of levity in an otherwise dry and highly technical conference, and we soon forgot about it.

The Snowden leaks broke a few months later, in June 2013, and we realised that the joke was actually on us. Courageous whistleblower Edward Snowden had leaked a huge tranche of classified documents from the National Security Agency (NSA), the national-level intelligence agency of the United States’ Department of Defense, and it was like a moment out of The Matrix. We discovered that elite intelligence agencies had been systematically eavesdropping on the whole world’s digital traffic for the past several years. From random citizens to foreign persons of interest, videogamers and world leaders alike, no one was exempt. The academic security research community — which has a proud and eventful history of resisting government overreach and innovating tools for individual privacy — was devastated.

Many books have been written about this story since and many films have been made. Citizenfour, a documentary film about the leaks, picked up an Oscar in 2015. Oliver Stone made an eponymous film on Snowden in 2016. Snowden, who sought asylum in Russia, has given interviews aplenty and maintains an active Twitter presence and his new autobiography, Permanent Record, fills a vital gap in the entire narrative: this is a first-person view of one of the definitive stories of the new millennium. These are Snowden’s own thoughts and words.

Multiple themes run through the book: there is the story of Snowden the little boy, growing up in suburban United States and discovering his passion for computers when his father introduces him to video games. There is the sense of wonder, the thrill of adventure, as he dives headfirst into the world of technology. Working for tech giants and subcontracting for the NSA is the logical next step. Then he stumbles upon clues that something is afoot behind the scenes.

Edward Snowden’s autobiography fills the gap in the narrative about him, and his disclosures about government digital surveillance, with his own thoughts and words

Here the narrative changes gear to read like a detective story. Snowden effortlessly breaks down technical concepts for the lay reader, walking them through the gist of the NSA’s massive surveillance apparatus. His techie writing style is earnest and has a charm of its own; for instance, here he describes his mental struggle before going public: “Contradictory thoughts rained down like Tetris blocks, and I struggled to sort them out — to make them disappear. I thought, pity these poor, sweet, innocent people — they’re victims, watched by the government, watched by the very screens they worship. Then I thought: Shut up, stop being so dramatic — they’re happy, they don’t care, and you don’t have to, either. Grow up, do your work, pay your bills. That’s life.”

Cinema cannot capture these raw thought processes: the silent solitary anguish of waiting, wondering, struggling with the notion of pulling the plug on a promising career, and having to reorient to the lifestyle of a perpetual fugitive. Matters are complicated immeasurably because of Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay Mills, the love of his life, in whom he cannot confide. He details clumsy efforts to articulate moral arguments. He wrestles with what the internet has now become: a wondrous technology with so much promise, now monetised and weaponised to the point that it can barely be recognised.

Permanent Record is not a standard autobiography and it is clearly not a cash grab — in fact, the US government had moved to seize all proceeds resulting from sales of this book. And activism aside, this book is quite enjoyable as a coming-of-age story post-9/11. You get a vivid sense of the man himself, and dive into his worldview. Snowden is uncomplicated, earnest and fundamentally decent — qualities that are painfully rare in this day and age.

Finishing the book can be a bit of a depressing experience, though. One cannot help but wonder — was this whole struggle worth it? In the last century, scandals such as Watergate and the Pentagon Papers resulted in real change. Former American president Richard Nixon had his political opponents bugged and, as a result, had to resign in disgrace. But now governments bug everyone and no one really seems to care.

And it’s not just this particular case. The last couple of decades are littered with the corpses of failed progressive movements. The Occupy Wall Street movement collapsed and the so-called Arab Spring failed. A recent expose in The Washington Post reveals that the US government systematically lied to the public about outcomes at every stage of the Afghan war. Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, is being tried for espionage and is allegedly locked up in conditions that amount to near-torture. No one blinks. Clearly something essential is missing today.

Meanwhile, surveillance culture is thriving. The police in London have recently activated live facial recognition on cameras in select locations. China has actually gone the full distance and now surveils its citizens using cameras and grades them on compliance. Our own country — as noted in this very newspaper recently — may be a laggard in the fourth industrial revolution, but is nonetheless making fine progress on monitoring citizens and clamping down on free expression.

But Snowden doesn’t talk about this aspect in the book. It would have been interesting to have his thoughts on this. What does he make of his legacy? Where do we go from here? How can things change? However, he does give us a clue in a recent talk in Germany where he flips the tables on his audience: “If we’re hoping for a champion, if we’re waiting for a hero, we will be waiting forever, because it’s not a politician that you’re looking for. It’s the people in this room. It’s you.” And now we know.

The reviewer is an assistant professor at the NUST School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Permanent Record
By Edward Snowden
Metropolitan Books, US
ISBN: 978-1250237231
352pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 14th, 2020