“Ultimately, the privacy of our data depends on the ownership of our data.”
I’m a little embarrassed to say that before this book, I knew very little about the Snowden revelations, nor about Snowden himself. The disclosures made in June 2013 were logged in my mind somewhere between Wikileaks and Assange, and those briefest of years in the early 2010s when the Internet last appeared to hold more potential for liberation than entrapment. Snowden, I imagined much like Chelsea Manning; someone who had grown so disillusioned and distraught by what they’d learned about their government’s technological capabilities and bloodthirstiness, its human victims, that they had as though by Camusian forces turned, revolted.
At the end of 2018, I listened to the final episode of the Guardian podcast Chips With Everything, something I had only occasionally paid attention to. Host Jordan Erica Webber and the paper’s technology editor, Alex Hern, both agreed that the Snowden revelations constituted the most important piece of news in ‘tech’ during past decade, transforming popular understanding of corporate surveillance technologies, personal data collection, and our governments’ active role in it. With that in mind, I decided to give this book a shot.
I didn’t read it on my Kindle, where I usually read books, nor via hardback, but listened to the audio version on Audible. I can really recommend that medium for this text; written as a first person account by Snowden himself, it felt intimate and gripping. As I cycled through Copenhagen I would consciously slow down, or take long routes to the office or the library, stretching out the commute long enough to hear what happened next in the Beltway or Geneva or Hawaii. Although he occasionally uses programming jargon and there are a bunch of acronyms throughout the text, I think these were always explained well, and generally the language is straightforward enough to follow via headphones.
Two things stood out for me in the book. The first was the bureaucratic character of state intelligence in the 21st century, typified most prominently by the extent of contracting in so-called intelligence services. At the time of his disclosures, Snowden was working as a contractor at the National Threat Operations Center (NTOC) in Hawaii through the private company Booz Allen Hamilton. By this point in his life, Snowden had held innumerable contractor positions for companies like Dell, all working for the National Security Agency (NSA). He describes the matrix of contractors employed at NSA facilities in a way reminiscent of nodes in Tor, the network he relied on to make the disclosures without getting caught; like the nodes, contracting enables government agencies and the companies they work with, which themselves sub-contract, to act with anonymity, veiled by other companies and the companies those companies contract. Contracting, so lucrative for so many technology companies and consultancies, enables the evasion of culpability emblematic of late capitalism. The degree of separation between Snowden, technically an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, and the US government, would ultimately be used to dispute his disclosures. He wasn’t really a spy, just a contractor – so the PR ran throughout 2013.
A related facet of the intelligence bureaucracy that I found fascinating was the disorderliness with which Snowden characterizes the agencies where he worked. The spy imaginary is slick and omniscient, chains of command are clear, and everyone knows what they are doing – or at least, that is what Hollywood and John le Carré have led us to believe. Not so, according to Snowden. The office politics and general organization-wide fallibility he describes remind me of offices where I’ve worked, more like Dunder Mifflin Paper Company than the Langley depicted in Homeland. Those descriptions are both reassuring, in the way David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs reminds you bullshit jobs are everywhere, and you are not alone. But also very, very unnerving. These organizations make literal life and death decisions, determining the fates of citizens in the US and around the world.
While reading the book, I learned that Snowden’s patriotism is perhaps the second most well-known thing about him, after the disclosures. But I had no idea about that when I started listening. That is the second theme that stood out for me. Bordering on fervency, it became clear from the early chapters, where he recalls a childhood of civil servant parents and a decision to join the army in the wake of post-9/11 jingoistic hysteria, that he wants the reader to trust his disclosures were driven by loyalty to his country and its people, rather than self-interest. He suggests towards the end of the book that this motivation is what separates his whistleblowing from leaks; what makes him different to Julian Assange. I imagine that while this is probably a true reflection of his character, it was also a very conscious writing choice. It is gun-touting, war-mongering, constitution-wielding Republicans in the US who most want to see Snowden’s head on a spike. By describing how he sprinkled copies of the constitution on the desks of NSA colleagues during ‘Constitution Day’ and how his partner Lindsay and he enjoyed nothing more than days shooting in the woods – perhaps, we imagine, with the revolver he bought her once as a gift – it is these readers he seems to seek approval of most.
I think I would recommend the book, particularly to anyone who remains unconvinced of the need to switch from Whatsapp to Signal. I was most impressed with his criticism of the tech world(s) he himself helped to build, notably in the teen years he spent on obscure chatrooms writing things he apparently now regrets, and hacking local nuclear facility websites. What he revealed to the world in 2013 was, in his own words, “the result of two decades of unchecked innovation. The final product of a professional and political class that dreams itself your master”.