5 October 2019
It is a bit more than six years since Edward Joseph Snowden made his stunning revelations. They were about the pervasive surveillance of all Americans and other countries' citizens by the NSA (National Security Agency). Since then, the debate has raged about whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor or a misguided youth. So far, Snowden himself hasn't said much on this subject except that it is not about him at all. It is all about the violation of the Constitution and the freedoms it guarantees. He has been trapped physically in Moscow since 2013. If the US government, the CIA, and the NSA hoped that this would silence Snowden, it was not to be. Snowden is a top dog in Computer networks and Cryptology. He uses it to participate in discussions in the US and elsewhere in the world through video-conferencing without giving a clue to his geo-location. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other human rights activists and privacy advocates have been fighting on his behalf to bring him back to the US for a fair trial. This memoir does not contain new information on his reasons for exposing the NSA. Nor does it say more on the various secret programs like the PRISM or XKEYSCORE or STELLAR WIND. Films like 'Citizen Four' and 'Snowden' have documented all of this. The new material in this memoir is about his family, his girlfriend Lindsay Mills, and his early life in Maryland.
This memoir makes for straightforward and engaging reading. Snowden was one of the kids who grew up in the new internet-age of the 1990s. This a time when most school kids spent their time in front of the computer, playing video games or posting on social media or just browsing and researching. His family has always worked for the US government, going back to the Revolutionary war. Snowden's grandfather was a rear admiral, his father worked as a coast guard, and his mother worked for the NSA in the backroom. Snowden himself joined the army soon after 9/11, but the military discharged him within months due to injuries. His geekiness with computers got him a job in the CIA, eventually landing him in Hawaii as an NSA contractor. We all know what happened afterward. The one statement that stood out for me in the book was his explanation of his actions post-Hawaii. Snowden says, "The most important decisions in life are made subconsciously and only express themselves consciously once fully formed - once you are finally strong enough to admit to yourself that this is what your conscience has already chosen for you, this is the course that your beliefs have decreed."
The book deals mainly with his actions in the context of democracy, freedom, the Constitution, the role of the press, whistleblowing, national security, and so on. I shall touch on a few of these aspects which captured my interest.
We have the image of organizations like the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA as high-security fortresses, which are difficult to penetrate and compromise. Mostly it must be true. So, then, how did Snowden copy thousands of documents and escape with them amidst all the security, hierarchy, checks, and balances in the NSA? The memoir provides the answer in a few places. The critical point is that the strength of these large computer systems is also its main weakness. Their complexity means that even the people running them do not necessarily understand how everything worked. They didn't know where things overlapped and where the gaps were. Only the smart and competent System Administrator knew it. And Snowden was one.
Secondly, Snowden says that there is incomparable beauty in Cryptological art. A little bit of math can accomplish what all the guns and barbed wire cannot. A small amount of math can help you keep a secret. And he shows how he uses it to invalidate all his files before preparing to fly to Ecuador via Moscow and Havana.
Thirdly, modern digital technology has become so complex that even when something is explicitly said, it hardly registers itself in the minds of people who are supposed to be our watchdogs. Snowden gives a stunning example from his own experience in the NSA.
Ira 'Gus' Hunt was the Chief Technology Officer of the CIA. In March 2013, he gave a presentation to a small crowd of journalists and a broad open audience over the Internet about the CIA's ambitions and capacities. Gus said that the CIA tries to collect everything and hang on to them forever. He further amplified it by saying that it is nearly within their grasp to compute on ALL (Gus' emphasis!) human-generated information. Worse still, Gus told the journalists that the CIA could track their smartphones, even when they are switched off and that they could surveil every single one of their communications. As if this was not enough, he concluded by saying that technology is moving faster than government or law or the public can keep up. He advised the journalists that they should be asking what their rights are and who owns their data! Snowden says that only 'The Huffington Post' covered Gus' public confession. The video itself remains on YouTube even after six years. It was viewed just 313 times (the last time he checked), out of which twelve were by Snowden himself!
As I read this, I was reminded of the philosophical wisdom of Karl Marx when he said, "There is something in human history like retribution, and it is a rule of historical retribution that its instrument is forged not by the offended, but by the offender himself." Hence, it was the nobility, not the peasants, who abolished the French monarchy in 1792. Similarly, it was an insider who dealt a blow to the NSA. It didn't come from the public or the journalists.
Finally, we have to take stock of the state of affairs six years after Snowden went public. Are things any better, or are they worse still? Amidst all the depressing news about the widespread prevalence of mass surveillance in most Western democracies, it is easy to lose heart. We may feel that we are living more and more under conditions that are similar to the Stasi-dominated East Germany of the 20th century. But, Snowden draws our attention to the significant gains since his revelations in 2013. His exposé roused both houses of Congress, resulting in multiple investigations into NSA abuses. They concluded that the NSA repeatedly lied regarding the nature and efficacy of its mass surveillance programs. Congress then passed the USA Freedom Act, which amended Section 215 to prohibit the bulk collection of Americans' phone records explicitly. It means that these records would remain where they initially remained - in the private control of the Telecoms. The government would have to formally request specific ones with a FISC warrant to access them.
In the private sector, the giant internet companies also were forced to act. Apple adopted secure default encryption for its iPhones and iPads. Google did the same for its Android products and Chromebooks. However, Snowden says that the most significant change was that businesses throughout the world switched their websites from using unencrypted HTTP to fully encrypted HTTPS, which helps prevent third party interception of Web traffic. 2016 was a landmark year when more web traffic was encrypted than unencrypted since the invention of the Internet.
Also, in 2016, the EU parliament passed the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation). It seeks to standardize whistleblower protections across its 28-member states as well as establish a standardized legal framework for privacy protection.
Snowden himself, in exile, heads the Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF), which protects and empowers public-interest journalism. FPF has supported Signal in the development of SecureDrop, an open-source app that allows media organizations to accept documents from anonymous whistleblowers and other sources securely. As the years have gone by, Snowden now believes that an encrypted smartphone is a more robust help to a journalist or dissident than legislative reforms of the surveillance regime in their host countries.
All these acts are significant gains for the common man from Snowden's courageous and selfless sacrifice of his future. His detractors never tire of pointing out the 'irreparable damage' he did to the security and future of the US and how he presented a bonanza on a platter to its enemies. In short, Edward Snowden is a volcano that destroyed everything in its path. However, this charge is nothing new. Other whistleblowers like Daniel Ellsberg and Chelsea Manning have faced the same criticism. Even the USSR used to make the same accusations against its famous dissidents during the Cold War years. Towards the end of his memoirs, Snowden quotes a few lines of native Hawaiian wisdom from his wife Lindsay Mills' diary to answer such criticism.
Lindsay Mills writes,"...I remember the guide at Kilauea saying that volcanoes are only destructive in the short term. In the long run, they move the world. They create islands, cool the planet, and enrich the soil. The ash they shoot into the air sprinkles down as minerals, which fertilize the earth and make new life grow…."