Modern pollution is what Snowden terms the records of our lives imprinted in various devices that surround us
My name is Edward Joseph Snowden. I used to work for the government, but now I work for the public. It took me nearly three decades to realise that there was a distinction.” Thus begins Permanent Record, the memoir of the most famous whistleblower of our times. The story of a genius at computers, whose life is intertwined with the post-9/11 world order.
Shaken after the terror attacks, the American establishment initiated an unprecedented apparatus of espionage that needed bright young hackers who could break into any security system. Snowden was among the brightest to have joined the brigade. As an immediate emotive response to the attacks, he joined the Army before he found himself on the payroll of the CIA. He later worked as a contractor for the NIA before he realised the horror involved in his work. “I participated,” he recalls, “in the most significant change in the history of American espionage — the change from the targeted surveillance of individuals to the mass surveillance of entire populations.”
Large parts of Snowden’s story are already well known. Permanent Record reveals the human behind the whistleblower. His childhood, his growing addiction to computers, his escape to Russia and his romance and marriage with Lindsay Mills.
Snowden’s disclosures were not driven by sensationalism. He was rather concerned about how various “so-called advanced governments throughout the world” had been dishonouring the fundamental human right to
privacy. “Nowhere has this regression been more apparent than in the relationship of governments to the press,” he writes. At a time when powerful states are trying to discredit journalism, he points out these governments conflate truth with fake “through technologies that are capable of scaling that conflation into unprecedented global confusion”.
The disaffection about his work for the American establishment had been brewing inside him for several years. By 2011, he had realised that the post-9/11 world had recorded “a cavalcade of America-made tragedies” from the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to Guantamo Bay. It had dawned on him that “fear was the true terrorism, perpetrated by a political system that was increasingly willing to use practically any justification to authorise the use of force”.
Eventually, his conscience bore heavy as he released massive trenches of classified data in June 2013 that revealed horrific details about the US surveillance system across the world, including on its own citizens. Significantly, he did not release the files on his own. He handed it over to reputed journalists to let them decide what should be brought out in public good and what should remain hidden.
His diagnosis about the present world order is accurate. The US could have used the post 9/11 era to reinforce democratic values; instead it went to war — a step about which he would record later: “The greatest regret of my life is my reflexive, unquestioning support for that decision.” Snowden notes with irony that while nearly 3,000 people had died on 9/11, “over one million people have been killed in the course of America’s response”.
Anticipating the gravity of his disclosures, he had fled the US before he released the files. Soon he was slapped with criminal charges under the Espionage Act and termed a traitor. The US revoked his passport. He was granted asylum in Russia and has been living there since then.
After the publication of Permanent Record in early September, the US sued him and Macmillan for publishing the book in “violation of his secrecy agreements”. The US, however, has not sought a restraint on the publication or distribution of the book.
He records the horrors of the Internet, a virtual world that pushes one into a fantasy zone, enabling multiple role plays and power to hack anyone’s life — a dangerous trait that has already left a big dent in human civilisation.
“We need to be regulating the collection of data,” he said in an interview, “because our phones, our devices, our laptops — even just driving down the street with all of these systems that surround us today — is producing records about our lives. It’s the modern pollution.”
Snowden is the conscience-keeper of the digital world. An insider who, having lived through the digital hell, narrates the terror of the online world we are in the grip of, and yet unable to perceive.
(Ashutosh Bhardwaj is an award-winning writer and journalist)