Permanent Record is an autobiography by Edward Snowden, whose revelations sparked a global debate about surveillance. He released his memoir six years after his disclosure 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 to contribute to a discussion about privacy rights.
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 Los Alamos National Laboratory’s website, the country’s nuclear research facility. At this point, he was just a teen. He would often stay up late exploring uncharted online territories during the internet’s earliest days. Snowden 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 might be most interested in the second and third parts of the book. These parts 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 distribution but 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.
About Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden is an American whistleblower who copied and leaked highly classified information from the National Security Agency (NSA) in 2013. He did so while he was a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee and subcontractor. His disclosures revealed numerous global surveillance programs. Many of these were run by the NSA and the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance with the cooperation of telecommunication companies and European governments. This act prompted a cultural discussion about national security and individual privacy. His disclosures have fueled debates over mass surveillance, government secrecy, and the balance between national security and information privacy.
“The reason you’re reading this book is that I did a dangerous thing for a man in my position: I decided to tell the truth.” – Edward Snowden
Snowden’s Call To Protect His Country
“Ultimately, saying that you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different from saying you don’t care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say.” – Edward Snowden
A Young Talent
Snowden was technologically talented from a young age. Throughout his teenage years, he learned more and more about hacking. At the age of 16, Snowden’s hacking skills were becoming highly developed. Eventually, he caught the attention of Mae, a woman who recruited him as a freelancer for her online business. At $30/hour cash, Snowden worked from her townhouse doing web design. During this job, he realized that he needed further education if he wanted a future in IT. After this realization, Snowden signed up for a Microsoft certification course. This was a substantial commitment as he had to pay for it through loans.
9/11’s Impact on Snowden
9/11 was the event that sparked Snowden’s patriotism. He remembers hearing the news of the attack on the World Trade Center. After the terrorist attack, Mae advised him to return home and be with his family. So, Snowden began his drive home. On the way, he passed the NSA headquarters and watched the frantic employees fleeing the building in fear. 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. That said, he didn’t have a college degree and had no desire to earn one. His solution was enlisting in the Coast Guard.
Training to Be a Soldier
After intense testing, Snowden qualified for the 18 X-Ray program. This program was designed for soldiers with the highest physical and mental abilities. The hope was that these soldiers would later become Special Forces sergeants. Before enlisting, Snowden and the other talented soldiers had to attend basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia. Only a few months in, Snowden fractured his ankle, and he could not continue his military training. This rehab period gave him time to think about his future. He knew that the only way he could serve his country was using his computer skills. So, he decided to attempt to obtain the hardest security clearance possible: TS/SCI. TS/SCI is the clearance needed to work for the CIA and NSA. Obtaining such clearance would require an extensive background check. For example, the government would interview his friends and family members and examine his internet history.
During this background check, government agents would have noticed his recent activity on a website called HotOrNot.com. On this dating website, users rate others’ pictures and talk to them. Here, Snowden met Lindsay Mills. They hit it off immediately. 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. He knew this was a small step in the right direction as the university worked with the NSA. That said, Snowden realized that if he wanted to truly serve his country, he would be better off working for a private-sector company.
Soon Snowden was hired as a subcontractor working for COSMO. Here, he was a systems administrator at CIA headquarters in Mclean, Virginia. The first stage of training involved him and his fellow recruits being sworn to secrecy. They were even shown a presentation about what happened to former contractors and agents who leaked information and had been punished for doing so.
His role as the CIA’s Directorate of Support meant Snowden helped manage servers for the CIA’s Washington-Metropolitan area. He held the cryptographic keys that kept CIA secrets safe. Snowden took pride in his new position where he sat twelve hours each night in a secure office, ensuring that the servers functioned properly. Though, Snowden realized he also wanted to get out and see the world.
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 train as a Technical Information Security Officer (TISO) for six months. TISOs are responsible for handling the technology behind any intelligence operation. They are employed at every US embassy in the world. That said, this training was anything but glamorous. Living in a shabby motel, Snowden and his fellow students were tired of spending every hour of every day in such awful conditions.
Snowden Uncovers a Top-Secret Program By Accident
Learning About Government Surveillance
While working in Geneva, Snowden found himself in the middle of the US’ transition to technology-based intelligence. 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. 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. They can see and hear everything they do. This worried Snowden, and he wondered if America were doing the same.
The PSP Report
This experience encouraged Snowden to do some more digging, and he began reading unclassified reports on the President’s Surveillance Program (PSP). After 9/11, this program allowed the government to tap into phone calls without a warrant. The PSP report was actually released to the public by the government. Though, 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 remained confidential even to those with top security clearance. He received the report through a glitch in the system. Snowden expected to discover the report released to the public. Still, he was shocked to find that this report was significantly 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. 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 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 also began to experience seizures on top of his already debilitating depression.
Snowden Takes the First Steps To Expose the Government’s Secrets
“The freedom of a country can only be measured by its respect for the rights of its citizens, and it’s my conviction that these rights are in fact limitations of state power that define exactly where and when a government may not infringe into that domain of personal or individual freedoms that during the American Revolution was called “liberty” and during the Internet Revolution is called “privacy.” – Edward Snowden
Snowden Streamlined His Whistleblowing
To help recover from his illnesses, Snowden took an NSA position in Hawaii. He decided to use his extra time to learn more about the NSA surveillance program. So, Snowden stayed up to date on technology by checking the NSA’s “reading boards.” These boards served as a daily digital bulletin board for the NSA. They consisted of internal news blogs based on classified intelligence activities.
Snowden needed to come up with a way to streamline his browsing and make it more efficient. So, Snowden created a program called Heartbeat. Heartbeat compiled any new information and reports from these “reading boards” into a single news feed. It was through Heartbeat that Snowden obtained most of the documents that he would later share with journalists. This includes 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.
Exposing the System
In 2012, smart devices were gaining popularity, and Snowden knew how the government was lying to the public. The NSA was clearly violating the 4th Amendment of the Constitution, the right to privacy. That said, he couldn’t merely expose these documents; he had to expose the entire system.
Snowden knew he had to choose the most appropriate journalists and 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. He disguised his location and protected their private conversations.
The Discovery of XKEYSCORE
How Snowden Covertly Gathered Information
Snowden understood how difficult it would be to leak this information and keep his identity hidden.
To solve this issue, Snowden started by using the Heartbeat program he created to access the documents he needed. Then, he used old Dell PCs no longer in use at the office. Snowden explained to colleagues that he was using “compatibility testing” to learn if new technology would work on these old computers. The reality was that 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. Each encryption process 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 hide his nervousness as he walked past guards by playing with his Rubik’s cube. Eventually, he 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. He would then send the information to the journalists from his car, where he could easily hack into a stranger’s Wi-Fi. Despite all this work, 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.
Asking For a Transfer
Wanting to absorb as much information as possible before the leak, Snowden asked for a transfer. He did this 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 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.
Snowden Shocked the World on June 6, 2013
Preparing to Flee the Country
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. Between March and May, Snowden began emptying his bank accounts, erased and encrypted old computers and prepared 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. On June 6, 2013, Greenwald’s first story about the NSA appeared in The Guardian. It disclosed information about the court order that allowed Verizon to collect customer data. The following day, stories on PRISM were released. As the stories were released, the government frantically tried to find the source of the leak.
Coming Forward as the Whistleblower
Just a few days later, Snowden came forward as the whistleblower. Lawyers Robert Tibbo and Jonathan Man helped Snowden hide 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. Hong Kong refused to allow him sanctuary within its borders, and he had nowhere to go. 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. The aim was to avoid detection by the U.S. However, on a layover in Moscow, Snowden was stopped by authorities once they discovered the U.S. Department of State had canceled his passport. 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.
Finding a New Home
During this time, the FBI followed Lindsay 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 the public’s data and privacy. He works with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights. He and Lindsay have adjusted to their new life in Moscow.
Snowden was introduced to computers by his father, using his Commodore 64 home computer. From the age of twelve, he became obsessed with the internet. He eventually learned computer programming and became a hacker as a teenager. This took his focus away from his schoolwork to the detriment of his grades.
Despite this, Snowden became a highly influential tech specialist for the NSA and CIA. Although initially passionate and patriotic, Snowden became worried after learning about the US government’s surveillance of the public. After 9/11, the US intelligence agencies had created a program that allowed them to gather their residents’ private communications. They could access them anytime they wanted. This was all being done without the public’s knowledge.
The result was a complex and dangerous mission to transfer evidence of these crimes right under the government’s nose. In 2013, Snowden became a whistleblower and revealed to the world how governments are not respecting our privacy.
Comment below and let others know what you have learned or if you have any other thoughts.
New to StoryShots? Get the audio and animated versions of this summary and hundreds of other bestselling nonfiction books in our free top-ranking app. It’s been featured by Apple, The Guardian, The UN, and Google as one of the world’s best reading and learning apps.
Related Book Summaries
AI Superpowers by Kai-Fu Lee
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari
Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari
Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom
Life 3.0 by Max Tegmark
Start With Why by Simon Sinek
Educated by Tara Westover
Daring Greatly by Brene Brown
The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley