Privacy and Edward Snowden’s “Permanent Record” book

Last month, Edward Snowden published his autobiographical book, Permanent Record. I didn’t really know a whole lot about Snowden before reading it, besides the fact that whenever I mention him someone starts a 10 minute rant about how he’s a “traitor – the worst kind” and needs to be locked up for some good ol’ American Justice. Also, that there was a scene in the trailer of the Snowden movie where he casually tossed a Rubik’s cube stuffed with SD cards to a security guard. That was, quite possibly, the coolest a tech guy has ever been portrayed in the history of cinema [1]. After reading the book, the one thing I can say for sure is that the world is a scarier place than I gave it credit for. I’m sure that most of the NSA’s capabilities were revealed in Snowden’s original leak, but I didn’t really pay much attention then. Who cares about me? I thought. I’m a simple man trying to make my way through the universe. I’ve got nothing to hide, so why should I care? Turns out, privacy is a way bigger deal than I think anyone I know gives it credit for.
The book starts with Snowden’s childhood, including a fun anecdote with the Los Alamos nuclear research laboratory website. He basically typed /files into their URL and had complete access to all their internal communications records. He freaked out, messaged them about this gaping security hole, and waited intensely for weeks for them to fix it. When he was a teenager. Crazy stuff.

Permanent Record is full of these kinds of stories, and I highly recommend you give it a read. But the big takeaway (for me at least) was Snowden’s explanation of what kinds of access the NSA has to our data. The NSA doesn’t have any reason to spy on people like you and me, but for them it doesn’t matter. Once you’ve been deemed a target [2], that’s basically it for your privacy. Visiting an http:// instead of an https:// site allows the NSA to add their own malware to your computer, and crazy as it seems, they can now see you. Every digital movement you make, and breath you take in front of the camera is sent to them and stored in their massive data warehouses.

I hadn’t experienced serious depression before reading the book. Sure, I got sad when Stephen Hawking died and when we lost net neutrality, but this was different. The government that I trusted to do the right thing, didn’t. I thought that paranoia and fear of governments was something for people in authoritarian regimes, not for those in shining-example-of-democracy America. But here we are. Or I am, at least. With a taped over laptop camera and using TOR, hoping that the government doesn’t arrest me for this. There’s two questions that come to my mind. First, what is the NSA going to do next in their quest for omniscience? And secondly, how can we stop it? I don’t think anyone outside of another Edward Snowden whistleblower can give us the answer to the first question. The answer to the second one should, theoretically, be as simple as passing laws that stop this kind of surveillance. One thing I found when reading the book was that the NSA technically follows the law, just interprets it in such a way as to make it meaningless. So would passing stricter laws help? Not necessarily. They would just interpret it away and carry on their merry way. We could try to fix it with increased transparency, but that clearly isn’t possible here. So what?
I honestly do not know. My best guess is that the culture of the NSA needs to shift from obsessing over needing to know everything to focusing on what they are supposed to be doing in the first place – serving the American people. Snowden hints at how we can accomplish this. He mentioned that one of the reasons why he was able to have such high clearance with barely a high school diploma was the need for young tech people in the NSA post-9/11. And from what we’ve seen from other young tech entrepreneurs, having the regular person’s best interest in mind isn’t something they do well. What they excel at is having a concrete goal and sticking to it. Collecting as much data as we can? Easy. Finding ways to analyze it to maximize profitability and/or surveillance capabilities? Piece of cake. Finding a balance between surveillance and helping the public? That’s where things get a little tricky.

I think it’s the easy way out to say that they should just get warrants for anything they need to do. But is that really the right answer? The technology we have today doesn’t work well for working on a case-by-case basis – it needs mountains and mountains of data to sift through and find the needle in the haystack. But we can’t argue for all-out privacy and full-on security at the same time. As much as I want freedom from a 1984 regime, I would also like to not have another 9/11. Thing is, a compromise doesn’t sound too great either.

The world sucks. And there’s not much we can do about it.

[1] I haven’t actually seen the film. But that Rubik’s cube toss – not bad. [2] There are a few technical terms in the book that I had to look up. After returning to the book from one of these searches, this was literally the next line in the book: “If at any point during your journey through this book you paused for a moment over a term you wanted to clarify or investigate further and typed it into a search engine–and if that term happened to be in some way suspicious, a term like XKEYSCORE, for example–then congrats: you’re in the system, a victim of your own curiosity.” Great. Thanks, Snowden.

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