A Blizzard of Information

Montgomery Blair, Writer

As Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor, reports in his new memoir, “Permanent Record,” on the morning of September 11, 2001, the NSA’s director Michael Hayden, “issued the order to evacuate before most of the country even knew what had happened.” Twelve years later, Snowden rocketed from complete obscurity to international headlines and public fame.

Snowden used his access to the NSA’s mass surveillance and bulk data collection programs to alert the press and public. Snowden’s memoir was published in September of last year and is, for being authored by such a technology inclined individual, surprisingly well written. His prose is full of witticism, his passion for civil liberties is palpable and his explanation of complex technological aspects of the programs that he worked on is elucidating.

According to Snowden, these mass surveillance programs violate the Fourth Amendment, which holds, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Snowden’s position is one the U.S. government clearly disagrees with, which led to Snowden being trapped in Russia on June 23, 2013, when then-Secretary of State John Kerry revoked Snowden’s passport while he was in mid-flight from Hong Kong to Moscow. Snowden had planned to connect to another flight that would take him toward his final destination in Ecuador where he planned to seek asylum.

Snowden, still stuck in Russia, now serves as the president of the board of directors of the Freedom of the Press Foundation which is, as he writes, “a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting and empowering public-interest journalism in the new millennium.” He states that the major goal of the organization is “to preserve and strengthen First and Fourth Amendment rights through the development of encryption technologies.” In his memoir, Snowden gives two reasons for his stance: the civil service environment of his family and the civil liberties environment of the early internet. His father and maternal grandfather both served as engineers in the United States Coast Guard.

Snowden writes in his preface about how today’s internet is unrecognizable from the internet of his youth. He rightly labels the internet of today as “surveillance capitalism,” the monetization and commercialization of individuals’ data. We, and by extension the data we generate through our online interactions, are the product for these “platforms.” This data, generated by our interactions with online platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Google, is collected and often used to individually target advertisements.

Until recently, most people weren’t aware that their data was being collected or how the methods of collection were being implemented. Even though this knowledge has now become more available to the public, the technologies that operate on these models have become almost indispensable for many people.

For anyone interested in Edward Snowden’s journey from public servant to international martyr, “Permanent Record” is a thoroughly enjoyable and informative read.