Permanent Record

Edward Snowden

Macmillan, £20

Review by Alastair Mabbott

To some, Edward Snowden will always be a traitor, but a few of his detractors may soften their stance on reading the whistleblower’s sober, meticulous autobiography. His revelations about the USA National Security Agency’s unconstitutional mass surveillance were, after all, vindicated by a federal court of appeals and a change in the law which reined in the NSA’s powers. Nevertheless, Snowden has been unable to leave Russia for six years, marooned there when the Obama administration revoked his passport mid-flight.

Writing surprisingly well for someone who couldn’t even contemplate penning a 1000-word essay about himself in high school, Snowden presents himself here as a man who always tried to act responsibly and in the public interest, even when smuggling state secrets out of a secure facility.

Entering the Intelligence Community in an influx of tech-savvy graduates after 9/11, Snowden was dismayed by the encroachment of corporate culture into government, and his disquiet was stoked further by hints that the NSA was carrying out unconstitutional surveillance of American citizens. He describes how he found his smoking gun while a systems administrator in Hawaii in 2009: the unredacted version of a document detailing bulk data collection and the underhand methods employed to carry it out. His worst fears were confirmed when he saw for himself the mass surveillance tool XXKEYSCORE, “the closest thing to science fiction I’ve ever seen”. Going by his description, XXKEYSCORE is the kind of system you’d see in a Bond or Bourne movie and dismiss as being beyond our present technical capabilities.

The chapters in which he smuggles out the documents and takes painstaking cloak-and-dagger measures to get out of the country with them are as gripping as any spy thriller. But equally interesting are the insights into the forces that shaped him, explored in the first half of the book. On his mother’s side, he is directly descended from two passengers on the Mayflower, and there’s a long tradition of military service in the family. Snowden grew up outside Washington, in a town where everyone worked for the government in some capacity.

But he was also part of the first generation to grow up with the internet, writing of the 1990s as an idyllic time before government and big business moved in and online activity was monetised. He admits that his computer fixation had its downside too: “Nothing inspires arrogance like a lifetime spent controlling machines that are incapable of criticism.” But by the early 2000s, he felt that the internet “offered a more authentic and complete incarnation of American ideals than even America itself”.

The ethos of the early internet and the values of patriotism and public service he was raised with are two expressions of idealism that have more common ground than most people give them credit for, sharing the concept of a self-regulating population, asserting the primacy of the people over governments and of founding principles over controlling interests. Snowden, or someone like him, was an inevitability, and in the increasingly polarised and combative climate of America we can expect more.