Permanent Record, by Edward Snowden, NY, Henry Holt and Company, 2019, 339 pp     

Whether you consider him a hero or a traitor, Edward Snowden’s 2019 memoir Permanent Record is an obligatory read for anyone who wonders how tech-enabled state surveillance could affect their lives. Snowden’s fascinating memoir recounts his journey from being a computer-obsessed high school dropout, to being an NSA agent with access to America’s top security files, and finally to being a refugee on the run for alleged treason.

Snowden’s story has significance beyond being a “permanent record” intended to defend and justify his 2013 disclosure of NSA mass surveillance programs to journalists Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald. It traces the changing nature of the internet, from an empowering platform that created “a community without border or limit” to a sinister engine of “surveillance capitalism” that manipulates and controls the masses without their knowledge or consent. 

Snowden has fashioned his life story as a tightly woven narrative where every episode contributes to the climax of his whistleblowing defection.

One of his earliest memories was when, at the age of six, he carefully set every clock in the house back by several hours, thus successfully delaying his bedtime. He was “a small boy in a small town who learned his most important life lesson from two Italian-immigrant plumber brothers with an appetite for sewer mushrooms” – Super Mario Bros. The lesson? “Life only scrolls in one direction.”

It is perhaps this lesson of life’s unforgiving forward trajectory towards inevitable mortality that led the young Snowden to care more about principles and values rather than his material comfort.

One of the most remarkable achievements of Snowden as a teenager who spent nearly every minute of his waking hours on the internet was spotting a security loophole in the website of Los Alamos National Laboratory, America’s nuclear research facility. He reported the discovery through a phone message ending with spelling his name in military phonetic alphabet. Weeks later, when the impressed IT representative from the nuclear lab finally called back with a ready job offer, he was shocked to find out that Snowden was a mere schoolboy.

For Snowden, September 11, 2001 was a pivotal turning point. When the towers were struck, 18-year-old Snowden was working blissfully for a young married woman he had a crush on. The tumbling towers on every screen abruptly marked the end of his childhood. The trauma-dazed young man abandoned his romantic fantasy along with his fascination for Japanese anime and his obsession over computer games.

He vowed to serve his country, if not with physical prowess, then with his innate mastery of digital technology. However, little did he know then that the country he pledged to serve had undergone a sinister transformation – in the post 9/11 area, the land of the free chose “security” and forgot freedom. 

“I had hoped to serve my country, but instead I went to work for it.” Snowden relates that in his father’s generation, intelligence work was carried out by lifelong government employees who faithfully served the country by protecting its founding principles no matter which party happened to be in power.

However, in his own time, he says, intelligence work is outsourced to contractors “whose patriotism was incentivized by a better paycheck and for whom the federal government was less ultimate authority than the ultimate client”.

Snowden argued this “Homo Contractus” system on the one hand excuses the government from being held accountable for violating its own laws and founding principles; on the other, it reduces the intelligence agents into profit-driven employees who willingly produce ever-more powerful surveillance tools without questioning their social or moral consequences.

In Snowden’s view, an ever-more-powerful Hobbesian Leviathan was being forged in the dark. “The Intelligence Community (IC) and tech industry rose as entrenched and unelected powers that pride themselves on maintaining absolute secrecy about their developments”. The IC is filled with young computer whizzes like Snowden himself, whose lifelong mastery over the machine gave them the illusion of control and infallibility. Older agents who spent their glorious youths serving their government in inhospitable countries are shuffled to dusty forgotten corners and helpdesk jobs.

Snowden warns that the tech-tide that completely reshuffled the power dynamics of the Intelligence Community is currently drowning the founding pillars of democracy. The American Constitution, created in the 18th century, is poorly equipped to protect the privacy and freedom of today’s netizens whose most precious property – their private lives – is constantly being recorded and stored.

Snowden explains that the ever-expanding power of digital technology has caused all three branches of the government — legislative, judiciary, and executive –to falter. Greybeards trapped in a bureaucratic system that takes an average of two years to pass a new legislation cannot hope to respond in an informed and timely fashion to the daily-escalating powers of tech industries. 

One example Snowden gives is the inadequacy of the existing American privacy law. Currently, the law protects the physical property of private individuals, and the specific contents of such things as phone calls and email exchanges between citizens. However, it isn’t necessarily the exact content of emails or phone calls that provides the most important clue to an individual’s behavior, but the broader context and patterns that reveal the individual’s whereabouts and his/her social connections.

This broader context is revealed by “metadata,” which refers to the nonverbal information silently communicated by, for instance, the smartphone that sits in our pockets. Though it may not be turned on, the phone is continuously communicating with the nearest telephone tower, providing the owner’s location. Other data, such as date, time and duration of a phone call, all searches made on the browser are constantly being recorded, collected, and permanently stored as “bulk collection”. The government bypasses privacy law by redefining terms such as “acquire” and “obtain” into “search” and “retrieve”. This means the government maintains the power of data collection and thus the capability of wielding this power against any target individual.

In 1668, Thomas Hobbes, in a then war-torn England, envisioned an absolute sovereign state he named the Leviathan to defend individuals from living nasty brutish and short lives in a state of war of all against all. Thus, it was the human desire for security and protection that gave rise to the state, and in the process, sovereign individuals surrendered their freedom and became subjects.

In 1785, Jeremy Bentham laid out the blueprint for the then most efficient of prison surveillance design, the panopticon. With one darkened guardhouse placed at the center of a transparent circular prison building, the prisoners can be counted on to behave according to the rules because of their awareness that someone might be watching at any given time. The “bulk collection” of metadata of all citizens at all times is bound to transform technological surveillance into a Benthamian panopticon and give rise to a Leviathan capable of thoroughly obliterating civil liberty.    

It is particularly interesting for a Chinese reader to learn that Snowden first learned of the existence of surveillance programs while preparing for a conference on Chinese surveillance systems in Japan. Snowden’s 2013 revelation of unlawful mass surveillance by the NSA ultimately changed data protection laws in America.

However, in China, the digital Leviathan is on the rise. Facial recognition systems are implemented in many major cities. Social credit system based on an individual’s behavioral pattern collected and assessed by their smart devices is currently deciding who qualifies for a bank loan and who gets to go to university or purchase a train ticket. Cash is disappearing so fast in Chinese cities that armed robbers are left empty handed unless they have a secret QR code that somehow escaped the authority’s all-seeing eye. 

Chinese citizens, for the most part, embrace these changes with open arms for the security, efficiency and convenience these smart systems provided them. The former Google China executive Kai Fu Lee in his 2018 book AI Superpowers described in glowing colors of future smart cities filled with self-driving cars and smart supermarkets where your grocery cart greets you by name and knows the exact content of your refrigerator in your home kitchen. Lee argued that the Chinese government’s eager support of AI programs, their authoritarian efficiency in allocating resources, and the constant collection of big data means China will likely win the race in AI tech and become the next superpower.

In contrast, Snowden shuddered at the sight of an internet-equipped smart fridge in a store in America. He eventually threw away his insane paycheck and life of comfort to warn the world about the dangers of data collection. And his message is greater than he had intended, because the threat of data collection is not a mere national issue. Governments, democratically elected or authoritarian, share the same goal of strengthening their own power and competing for global supremacy. As long as China continues its relentless development on its tech-enabled superpower, America will not risk abandoning its grasp of the same capabilities.

Snowden points out that the thin line between national defense and national control is much too easily crossed and much too tempting not to cross. Civil liberty exists in the narrow space where the rule of law restricts the government authority from encroaching on the private space of the individuals. For this space to continue to exist, people of the world need to work together to cage the emerging digital Leviathans.

Emma Zhang is a lecturer in English at Hong Kong Baptist University

Emma Zhang

Emma Zhang is Lecturer of English at Hong Kong Baptist University