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What would you do if your government could look at every message, photo, and conversation you have ever had? How should citizens respond to mass technological surveillance by a democratically elected government?
Edward Snowden exposed one of the American government's greatest secrets: a massive surveillance system that wiretaps all communications across the Internet and stores them forever. For the first time, Snowden writes about this journey in his autobiography Permanent Record, the ideals that inspired him to reveal these secrets, and what they mean to every one of us today.
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Born in North Carolina in 1983, Edward Snowden was a part of the last undigitized generation whose activities were captured in diaries, Polaroids, and VHS tapes, and not on networked devices connected to the cloud. His family had fought in every war in America's history from the Revolution to the Second World War. Snowden's love of gadgets began quite early, fueled by his father, who was an electronic engineer in the Coast Guard and would bring home new devices every other week. Snowden's early years were filled with Nintendo video games and visiting his father's electronics lab, where he saw a computer for the first time. This encounter was the beginning of a life-long fascination with computers and programming.
The move from North Carolina to Crofton, Maryland, was a social and economic step-up for the family. Snowden's father worked at the Aeronautical Engineering Department of the Coast Guard while his mother worked for the NSA. Their neighbors worked for the FBI, the Defense Department, and the Department of Commerce. The entire Beltway around Fort Meade was filled with families working with a branch or agency related to the government. It was at this time that Snowden got his first desktop computer with 8-bit color display and 200 MB of RAM. He would spend every possible minute he was allowed to on the computer. Snowden was 12 when the family got an Internet connection for the first time, thus opening an entire world of information and possibilities that occupied all his time. Whole nights would be spent on the Internet lost in endless learning about arcane topics and sleeping was reserved for the daytime. Snowden became paler and more sedentary and his grades fell. At a time when the Internet was wilder and more unregulated, the ability to be anonymous gave the possibility of freely expressing oneself. One could pick a new digital persona, start over, and not be judged. This ability to reinvent gave teenage Snowden the intellectual freedom to change opinions instead of being forced to defend them. His passion for building his own computer led him to forums and chatrooms where experts and tenured professors would patiently answer the 12-year old's questions and curiosities.
The adolescent was fed up with the arbitrary tyranny of rules that teachers imposed in school. Filled with a rebellious spirit and inspired by the digital world, Snowden decided to hack the rules at school. Hacking the system doesn't necessarily means breaking the rules. One has to know the rules better than anyone else to exploit the vulnerabilities that exist. This is true not only for computers but for any rule-based system. To minimize school hours, Snowden analyzed the syllabus sheet and found a way to get a decent grade without doing any homework. This time was used to hone his computer skills. As with many in the hacking community, Snowden did not do this for power or wealth, but merely the desire to test the limits of his talent. These experiments included reporting a security vulnerability in the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which hosted America's nuclear program.
Snowden's life came crashing down during his Freshman year when his parents divorced. While Snowden's sister reacted by throwing herself into college applications, he responded by turning further inwards and distancing himself from his parents. The problematic situation was further complicated by a debilitating attack of infectious mononucleosis that left him bedridden for four months. When he realized that he had to repeat the school year, he managed to find a clever workaround and enrolled himself in a local community college to bypass the remaining years in school. Snowden put his tech skills to use as a freelancer building websites and used that to pay his tuition. Recognizing the importance of professional certifications in the IT industry, he studied and became qualified as a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer.
When 9/11 happened, Snowden was at the residential quarters of Fort Meade. It was pandemonium all around with the NSA and CIA headquarters being evacuated. Special police, barbed wires, and Humvees with machine guns filled the streets, eventually becoming a permanent part of Fort Meade. America would never be the same again. Over a hundred thousand employees of the Intelligence Community returned to work the next day, knowing that they had failed to keep America safe. The heads of agencies petitioned and got approval for extraordinary security measures. Personally, Snowden's anti-establishment hacker ethos was entirely overwhelmed by a sense of patriotic duty. He signed up for the army, with top-grade scores in the entrance exams to be qualified as a Special Forces Sergeant, an elite track that was usually for existing army soldiers. However, a grievous accident during training left him with severe stress fractures that forced him off the training program. Eventually, he was given a discharge via ""administrative separation"" from the Army.
Throughout his recovery, Snowden realized that the best way to serve his country would be through his computing skills. He applied for the TS/SCI, the highest level of security clearance. After a thorough background check and a polygraph test, Snowden was deemed fit to work in the highest echelons of the intelligence community. Around the same time, he met 19-year-old Lindsay, his future life partner, through a casual interaction on HotorNot.com that quickly blossomed into a relationship.
By the time Snowden joined, the intelligence community had increasingly taken to hiring temporary contract workers from the private sector. Most open positions were through private companies. For example, the company COMSO employed Snowden on paper, but his real work was at the CIA headquarters. Snowden was responsible for maintaining CIA servers, including top-secret cryptography servers in the United States. He soon shifted to working for the CIA directly as a Telecommunication Information Security Officer. These officers were responsible for maintaining every part of the CIA's technical infrastructure hidden inside American embassies abroad, from computers to solar panels. At the end of his training, Snowden was posted to Geneva, which had sophisticated targets like UN Agencies and International Organizations, including the World Trade Organization. Most of this spy work was technological. During the 2008 global recession, Snowden saw how Geneva flourished with money flooding Swiss Banks while the world suffered. What was painful for the public benefitted the elites.
Snowden took up a new contract job with the NSA in Japan, as a Dell employee on paper. This center was responsible for maintaining the NSA infrastructure across the Pacific and spying on most countries in that region. The NSA was far more advanced than the CIA in terms of Cyber-intelligence. However, it lacked the most elementary security features, including encryption and global backups. Snowden was tasked with building EPICSHELTER, a comprehensive backup and disaster recovery system for the entire NSA. EPICSHELTER could restore all the data collected back to normal, even if Fort Meade went down.
When he joined the NSA, Snowden had little idea of its surveillance practices beyond the President's Surveillance Program (PSP), a Bush-era executive order that permitted the NSA to collect phone and Internet communications between the US and the world without a warrant. However, a file left on a server managed by Snowden had explosive revelations: the NSA's program STELLARWIND was designed for mass surveillance of all internet communication across the globe. This data was to be stored for perpetuity to be searched at whim. The NSA justified this by making a futile and pedantic distinction between data and metadata, arguing that metadata collection was not prohibited by US law. Effectively metadata can tell someone everything they want to know about a person ranging from their current location to who they have called. Snowden felt cheated, realizing that he had been protecting the state and not the country. The only two countries that had previously employed mass surveillance were Nazi Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union. Today, a single smartphone has more processing power than the computers of the Reich and the Soviet Union combined. The law had not kept pace with technology. With continuous collection and permanent storage of all data, anyone could be scapegoated at any time.
Snowden moved back to America to work with Dell as a Solutions Consultant for the CIA. The job was to design and build systems for the CIA. The America he returned to had changed significantly. Users were willingly hosting private photos and files on cloud services, ceding data ownership, and inviting corporate surveillance. This created tremendous revenue for corporates, and the government in turn poached this data either through secret warrants or surveilling the companies themselves. Snowden felt the immense stress of this knowledge yet not being able to share it with anyone. One day on an official call, he collapsed with what was later diagnosed as an epileptic seizure. He was forced to take a short-term disability leave.
After months of recovery, Snowden and Lindsay moved to Hawaii, as the doctors felt it would help him recover better. He took up a Dell contract job with NSA at the Office of Information Sharing. Although, this role was a step down the career ladder, it gave him the leisure for recovery and, more importantly the access to read the files needed to confirm the extent of NSA's surveillance. To do this, Snowden built a system called Heartbeat, which pulled documents from all CIA internal sites to deliver tailored newsfeeds for each NSA officer. The documents collected by Heartbeat were the source of all the documents later leaked to the Press by Snowden.
Snowden discovered PRISM, an NSA program to collect all email, audio, video, and chat data from Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, and Skype, among others. Over 90% of Internet traffic flows through infrastructure owned by the US government or US companies. Upstream collection was a mechanism by which the NSA collected this internet traffic by directly Internet Service Providers across the world. Between these two programs, the entire Internet was under total surveillance. XKEYSCORE was a Google-like search engine that allowed you to search for a person and read all of their emails, search history, social media, and even live video.
NSA's mass surveillance was a flagrant violation of the Fourth Amendment actively aided by the failure of both the legislature and judiciary. The legislature abandoned its supervisory role until only a few select committees knew what the NSA was doing. The branch expanded the mandate of secret courts that heard only from the government, to authorize mass surveillance without any public scrutiny or challenge. The US Supreme Court denied the right to even challenge NSA's surveillance in open courts. The executive branch authorized the policy of mass surveillance. The three branches of government failed deliberately with coordination. As Snowden puts it, the intelligence community had hacked the Constitution.
This degree of complicity made Snowden realize that a full public disclosure of this mass surveillance through the media with documentary evidence was the only way to restore a balance of power between citizens and government. Going public through the media would ensure responsible sharing without endangering national security. Snowden began preparations for this with the full knowledge that leaking even a single document could land him in prison for years. Snowden made contact with documentarian Lauren Poitras and Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian, who were already targeted for reporting on NSA's surveillance.
Snowden painstakingly smuggled out the documents from Heartbeat in tiny SD cards without arousing suspicion. These were then transferred to a hard disc and protected with multiple layers of encryption. The math behind encryption ensured that, with a long enough secret key, all of the world's computing power together could not break open a locked document. Encryption is the only reliable protection against surveillance.
Snowden knew that the intelligence community would come after him if he chose to stay in the US. He emptied his accounts and flew to Hong Kong to meet the two journalists. As he left, he had a sinking feeling that he would never see his family again. Snowden waited for ten days, holed up in a hotel room for Poitras and Greenwald to arrive. He made copious notes and organized his material to best explain to the journalists the extent of NSA's surveillance. Greenwald and Snowden discussed the details of the NSA's activities, which Poitras recorded on video. On June 5, 2013, the Guardian broke Greenwald's first story on the NSA collecting every call record from Verizon. Poitras ran a story on Washington post about the PRISM program. On June 9, Snowden released a video on the Guardian owning up responsibility for whistleblowing in public interest.
The US Government immediately filed an extradition request on Snowden. When the UN turned Snowden's application for asylum, he decided to fly to Ecuador, the country that had given asylum to Julian Assange, hoping for a similar treatment. Assange offered to help Snowden, and Sarah Harrison of Wikileaks flew down to assist him. She procured an emergency refugee travel permit from the Ecuador Embassy and accompanied him on a flight to Ecuador via Russia.
But the 20-hour layover at Russia turned into nearly six years of exile. On landing, Snowden learned that his passport had been revoked by the US State Department when the flight was still mid-air. When he refused to become a Russian informer, he was made to languish in the airport for nearly 40 days. During these days, 27 countries rejected Snowden's appeal for asylum. Finally, the Russian government granted him temporary asylum to bring an end to this ordeal.
Snowden's whistleblowing incited a tremendous public uproar and forced Congress to launch multiple investigations into NSA's abuses. The investigations found that the NSA had consistently lied to Congress on the nature and scope of its surveillance programs. In 2015, the federal court ruled that NSA's program was unconstitutional. The USA Freedom Act was passed to prohibit the bulk collection of American's phone records explicitly. Apple and Google responded by adopting secure encryption on their devices. Websites moved from the insecure HTTP protocol to the encrypted HTTPS standard. The European Union passed the General Data Protection Regulation that provides whistleblower and data privacy protections.
Lindsay came to visit Snowden in 2014. A few years later, she moved to Russia, and they got married. Today, Snowden heads the Freedom of Press Foundation, dedicated to empowering public interest journalism through better encryption technologies. The foundation supports Signal, an encrypted text and calling platform, and SecureDrop, a platform for whistleblowers to share files with media houses. Changing the law to adapt to technological shifts takes time. Until then, institutions will try to abuse this gap for their interests. Independent software developers can close this gap by building technologies that support civil liberties. While a legal reform might help only citizens, an encrypted smartphone can help people across the world. Today, Snowden spends his time speaking on civil liberties in the digital age to lawmakers, scholars, students, and technologists worldwide.
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