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What Is the Book About?
Permanent Record is an autobiography by Edward Snowden, whose revelations sparked a global debate about surveillance. A former contractor in the United States intelligence community, released his memoir, six years after his disclosures of classified materials that revealed the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance.
Mr. Snowden wrote the book to make people aware of the government’s domestic surveillance and also to contribute to a discussion about privacy rights. It was published on September 17, 2019, by Metropolitan Books.
The book describes Snowden’s childhood as well as his tenure at the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency and his motivations for the leaking of highly classified information in 2013 that revealed global surveillance programs.
The first part of “Permanent Record” is mostly personal. He recounts his early years, much of which he spent behind a computer. He writes of his discovery and reporting of a vulnerability in the website of Los Alamos National Laboratory, the country’s nuclear research facility, as a teen. Often staying up late exploring uncharted online territories during the internet’s earliest days, he struggled to stay engaged with school and failed to complete assignments. “You have so much potential, Ed,” said one teacher, who pulled him aside after class. “You have to start thinking about your permanent record.”
Those curious about why and how he disclosed top-secret information may be most interested in the second and third parts of the book, which cover his years working in the intelligence community.
Upon release, the United States filed a lawsuit against Snowden for alleged violations of non-disclosure agreements with the CIA and NSA. The lawsuit does not aim to restrict the book’s content or its distribution, but to capture the proceeds Snowden is earning from it.
The book has been censored in China, with the removed content including comments about authoritarian states, privacy-supporting technologies, and the right to privacy.
Book Summary of Permanent Record
Snowden recounts growing up in a patriotic military family in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and moving to Crofton, Maryland just shy of his ninth birthday. In Crofton, his father worked as a chief warrant officer in the Aeronautical Engineering Division at Coast Guard Headquarters and his mother at the National Security Agency (NSA).
He was introduced to computers by his father, using his Commodore 64 home computer. From around the age of twelve, he became obsessed with the internet, using dial-up Internet access and trying to spend his “every waking moment” online. He eventually learned computer programming and became a hacker as a teenager, taking his focus away from his schoolwork to the detriment of his grades.
He recalls one instance of discovering a security flaw on the website of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He called the lab to notify them of this and later received a call from a man thanking him and offering a job once he turned 18.
Toward the end of his freshman year at Arundel High School, Snowden’s parents were getting divorced and sold their Crofton house. He moved into his mother’s condo near Ellicott City. At the beginning of his sophomore year, he was unusually fatigued and was eventually diagnosed with infectious mononucleosis. He missed four months of classes and was told he would have to repeat his sophomore year. Instead, he dropped out of Arundel High and enrolled at Anne Arundel Community College (AACC), taking classes two days a week.
Snowden’s Call To Protect His Country
At the age of 16, Snowden’s hacking skills were becoming more and more developed and he eventually caught the attention of Mae, a woman who recruited him as a freelancer for her budding online business. At $30/hour cash, Snowden worked with her from her townhouse on a Web-design business where he realized that if he wanted a future in IT, he needed more schooling. So he signed up for a Microsoft certification course and paid for it through loans.
Then, one fateful day in September, Snowden heard the news of the attack on the World Trade Center. Mae advised him to return home and be with his family that day, so Snowden began his drive home. On the way, he passed the NSA headquarters and watched the frenzied evacuation as the employees fled the building in fear and confusion. Seeing such a sight sparked a patriotic urge from Snowden to join the military. He felt a call to use his computer skills to protect America, but how? He didn’t have a college degree and had no desire to earn one, so he enlisted in the Coast Guard.
After his testing, Snowden qualified for the 18 X-Ray program designed for soldiers with the highest physical and mental abilities who later become Special Forces sergeants. First, however, he had to attend basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia. Just a few months in, Snowden fractured his ankle and his military career came to a grinding halt. Now what? As he recovered on his mother’s couch, he thought about his future. He knew that the only way he could serve his country is to use his computer skills. So he decided to attempt obtaining the hardest security clearance possible. TS/SCI, the clearance needed to work for the CIA and NSA. Obtaining such clearance would require an extensive background check, the government would interview his friends and family members and examine his internet history.
During this background check, government agents would see his recent activity on a website called HotOrNot.com where users rate other’s pictures and talk to strangers in attempts to score a date. It was on this dating site that Snowden met Lindsay Mills. They hit it off immediately and she even helped him prepare for his upcoming polygraph exam, one of the requirements for security clearance. At the age of 22, Snowden qualified for the TS/SCI while also falling madly in love with his girlfriend.
Snowden’s First CIA Job
Snowden began his career by working with the University of Maryland as a security guard. While it wasn’t the position he was hoping for, he knew this was a small step in the right direction for working his way up. The university worked with the NSA, but soon Snowden realized that if he wanted to truly serve his country, then he would be better off working for a private-sector company.
Soon Snowden was hired as a subcontractor working for COSMO where he was a systems administrator at CIA headquarters in Mclean, Virginia. The first stage of training involved becoming initiated into using some of the most secret technology the government possessed. He and his fellow recruits were sworn to secrecy, they were even shown a presentation about what happened to former contractors and agents who broke the seal of secrecy and had been punished for doing so. Now, new recruits are shown what happens to whistleblowers like himself who reveal secrets for the good of the public.
His role as the CIA’s Directorate of Support meant that Snowden helped manage servers for the CIA’s Washington-Metropolitan area, which meant he held the cryptographic keys that kept CIA secrets safe. The responsibility of secret-keeping was exhilarating and Snowden took pride in his new position where he sat twelve hours each night in a secure office ensuring that the servers functioned properly. It was during this job that Snowden realized he didn’t want to be stuck in an office for the rest of his life, he wanted to get out and see the world.
So after nine months of working in the private sector, Snowden applied and was accepted to work a CIA tech job abroad. Before starting, Snowden had to go through training as a Technical Information Security Officer (TISO) for six months. TISOs are responsible for handling the technology behind any intelligence operation and are employed at every US embassy in the world. However, this training was anything but glamorous. Living in a dilapidated, health-code violating motel, Snowden and his fellow students were tired of spending every hour of every day in such awful conditions. Throughout his training, Snowden took it upon himself to send emails to the school director and his superior, the Director of Field Service, to complain about the conditions and demand action be taken. Surprisingly, it worked! He and his classmates were soon moved to another training facility.
However, just a day or two after the move, Snowden was brought to the school’s head office where the director of Field Service was waiting for him. Once there, he was reprimanded for his insubordination for breaking the chain of command; however, Snowden learned a valuable lesson that day: When it comes to the CIA, nothing is more important than following the chain of command. So what was his punishment? While Snowden volunteered to be stationed in the Middle East warzone, he was instead sent to Geneva in a cushy office position where his dreams of being a hero would be squashed.
Snowden Uncovers a Top-Secret Program By Accident
While working in Geneva, Snowden found himself in the middle of the US’s transition to technology-based intelligence. During his stint, Snowden worked with CIA case officers to help them navigate new technology that collected information on their targets. He taught these officers how to mask themselves on the internet and remain anonymous online. Snowden enjoyed his job, but he had yet to realize the full potential of the technology he was working with.
In 2009, Snowden moved to Japan to work for the NSA at the Pacific Technical Center (PTC) at Yokota Air Base. When a colleague dropped out, Snowden was asked to attend a conference in Hong Kong and give a presentation on China’s capability to track American assets. During his research, Snowden learned how the Chinese government tracks its own citizens; how they can see and hear everything they do. This worried Snowden and he wondered if America would follow suit and do the same, not just to their own citizens, but to the rest of the world.
This caused Snowden to do some more digging and he began reading unclassified reports on the President’s Surveillance Program (PSP) after 9/11 which allowed the government to tap into phone calls without a warrant. The PSP report was released to the public, but when Snowden attempted to do some more research, he couldn’t find anything. Miraculously, the report wound up on his desk just a few months later. He realized the report had been marked as Exceptionally Controlled Information (ECI), meaning it was to remain confidential even to those with top security clearance. He received the report through a glitch in the system, but Snowden decided to take a peek anyway. Snowden expected to see similar reports that were released to the public, but he was shocked to find that this report was radically different.
The report detailed a program named STELLARWIND which was the NSA’s most closely guarded secret. Since 2001, the program has been collecting communications through metadata. What’s metadata? Simply put, metadata is the tags and markers that record everything done on your devices, as well as what your devices do by themselves. Metadata allows intelligence to know where you are at any moment, who you’ve been communicating with, and everything in your browser history. It can tell where you’ve been and even where you are headed to next. In other words, STELLARWIND was a massive surveillance program that enabled the US government to spy on its citizens at all times.
Keeping this knowledge a secret hurt Snowden and caused him to fall into depression. He couldn’t do anything but simply watch as the government collected data from its citizens without their knowledge, creating a permanent record of all our habits and activities. The stress of keeping the knowledge a secret affected his health and he began to experience seizures on top of his already debilitating depression. He had no choice but to leave the work he once loved.
Snowden Takes the First Steps To Expose the Government’s Secrets
To help recover from his illnesses, Snowden took an NSA position in Hawaii in hopes that being in paradise with Lindsay would help him decompress. While the position was a step-down, he didn’t mind and decided to use his extra time to learn more about the NSA surveillance program. So Snowden stayed up to date on technology by checking NSA “reading boards” daily which served as a digital bulletin board for the NSA. These boards consisted of internal news blogs based on classified intelligence activities.
He needed to come up with a way to streamline his browsing and make it more efficient, so Snowden created a program called Heartbeat which compiled any new information and reports from these “reading boards” into a single newsfeed. It was through Heartbeat that Snowden obtained most of the documents that he would later share with journalists, including an order that allowed the NSA to collect metadata from companies like Verizon and AT&T. The order also included PRISM, which enabled the NSA to collect data from major companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple. Basically, once the NSA has malware on your computer, they have access to your entire digital life.
Snowden realized in 2012 that he couldn’t just sit back and allow Americans to be taken advantage of. Smart devices were gaining popularity and Snowden knew how the government was lying to the public, making them feel safe when in reality, they were collecting data and spying on their citizens. The NSA was clearly violating the 4th Amendment of the Constitution, the right to privacy. The public needed to know. But he couldn’t just simply expose these documents, he had to expose the entire system that produced it.
He realized he needed to take the story to the media, but he had to choose the right journalists as well as teach them exactly what the documents and the technical language meant. Snowden narrowed his focus to Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald. Poitras had previously worked on the NSA’s TRAILBLAZER program, the predecessor of STELLARWIND. Greenwald, a civil liberties lawyer, had previously reported on the NSA’s unclassified PSP report from 2009. To contact them, Snowden used encrypted emails from his home computer using various pseudonyms, disguising his location and protecting their private conversations.
The Discovery of XKEYSCORE
Once Snowden decided to expose the NSA’s massive surveillance program, he encountered several problems. He was working with one of the world’s most secure institutions so stealing their documents and sharing them would take some serious skill and planning. But Snowden, of course, had plans to leak the information while keeping his identity a secret.
First, Snowden used the Heartbeat program he created to access the documents he needed, that part was easy. However, Snowden knew that any move he made on his computers would be monitored by the NSA, so he came up with a plan that used old Dell PCs that were no longer in use at the office. By claiming that he was using “compatibility testing” to see if new technology would work on old computers, Snowden could easily transfer files onto these old PCs where he safely browsed and organized the documents.
From there, Snowden encrypted the data onto micro-SD cards, a process that could take up to eight hours. Then, he smuggled the cards out of the building by hiding them under the tiles of his Rubik’s cube. He would then hide his nervousness as he walked past guards by playing with his Rubik’s cube and eventually earned the nickname “Rubik’s Cube guy” as he started to carry them around everywhere he went.
Once home, Snowden would copy the files onto his own hard drive, and then send the information to the journalists from his car where he could easily hack into a stranger’s wifi. However, despite his efforts to remain anonymous, Snowden knew that if he tampered with the documents to obscure their origin, he would be hindering their credibility. In the end, he decided that the public good was more important than his personal safety and he sent the documents as originals.
Wanting to absorb as much information as possible before the leak, Snowden asked for a transfer so he could get his hands on a program called XKEYSCORE. The program functioned as a search engine that allowed NSA officials to access data collected through STELLARWIND. His transfer was accepted and he was flown to D.C. for training on how to use the program. During his training, Snowden discovered that XKEYSCORE was far more powerful than he anticipated. He learned that agents could simply type in a name or IP address and access a person’s entire digital history. Some analysts were even spying on their spouses and loved ones through the program and this realization that they could spy on anyone at any time deeply disturbed him.
Snowden Shocks the World on June 6, 2013
In 2013, Snowden knew it was now or never. He was back in Hawaii when he began making preparations to expose the NSA. The worst part was keeping his secret from Lindsay who he wanted to protect, so he didn’t tell her anything. Between March and May, Snowden began emptying his bank accounts, he erased and encrypted old computers, and he put his affairs in order to leave the United States forever. He finally fled the country while Lindsay was away on a weekend camping trip.
Snowden flew to Hong Kong where he met Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald to divulge the information and help them put together articles and videos that would reveal everything. On June 6, 2013, Greenwald’s first story about the NSA appeared in The Guardian and disclosed information about the court order that allowed Verizon to collect customer data. The following day, stories on PRISM became released. As the stories were released, the government frantically tried to find the source of the leak and do damage control.
Just a few days later, Snowden came forward as the whistleblower and lawyers Robert Tibbo and Jonathan Man helped Snowden go into hiding in some of the poorest neighborhoods of Hong Kong. On June 17, the U.S. government charged Snowden under the Espionage Act and requested his extradition. At the same time, Hong Kong refused to allow him sanctuary within its borders and he had nowhere to go. With the help of his lawyers, Snowden applied for asylum in numerous countries but all his requests were denied.
His new goal was to flee to Ecuador, which had previously given asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. With the help of Sarah Harrison, Snowden was to fly via Moscow, Caracas, and Havana to avoid detection by the U.S. However, on a layover in Moscow, Snowden was stopped by authorities once they discovered his passport had been canceled by the U.S. Department of State while he was in the air. He was stuck in Moscow. Snowden spent 40 nights sleeping at the airport surrounded by journalists but was soon granted temporary asylum by the Russian government.
During this time, Lindsay was suffering as the FBI followed her and interrogated her throughout the investigations. While she was initially upset with Snowden for what he had done, she understood why he did it. She eventually packed up their house in Hawaii and headed for Moscow, where she now lives with Snowden. In the years since, Snowden has continued to defend our data and privacy. He works with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights and he and Lindsay have adjusted to their new life in Moscow and will soon celebrate their second wedding anniversary.
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