Permanent Record

By: Edward Snowden

Published: 2019

Read: 2020


Over the past twenty years or so, the US intelligence community switched from targeted surveillance of individuals to the mass surveillance of populations and collected much of global digital communications, made possible by a culture still unworried about sharing of personal data (on the Internet and elsewhere) and broad public and legislative support for increased levels of surveillance following the attacks of 9/11.

As the technological complexity of intelligence systems grew, the civil services apparatus grew complacent in efforts to keep up with technological advances and increasingly relied on external contractors to develop, maintain and control its systems.

At the same time, oversight from various branches of the US government dwindled. Technological innovation outpaced moral, ethical and legal restraints, as whatever was technologically possible was likely to be pursued. This ultimately resulted in the creation of global systems of unrestrained intelligence collection; systems that combined mass surveillance with permanency of storage.

In Snowden’s view, the system of unopposed and unsupervised mass surveillance by the US government that emerged excessively infringed upon the freedom and rights of individuals, specifically where it concerns people’s privacy.

Deeming it impossible to fix the lack of oversight from within, Snowden decided to start collecting internal intelligence documents that proved his case, taking advantage of a fatal flaw of high tech systems: access to the system’s information is grossly disproportionate to levels of formal authority within the organization. In other words, many (lower level) people that are not supposed to know are technologically capable outsiders that are very much able to know.

Snowden then became a reluctant whistleblower (at high personal cost) by turning the documents he collected over to journalists for publication. The information he released has contributed to an increased public awareness of issues related to (online) privacy, privacy laws and the ownership of data.

Worth Reading:

An interesting account of Snowden’s personal history and his journey through various institutions within the US intelligence community. A reasonably fair examination of the dangers of mass surveillance and the abuse of personal data, especially at the hands of disinterested and incapable institutions, or worse, bad actors.

Polemic as it should be, his views towards the end of the book become perhaps overly dystopian, possibly exaggerating the potential consequences of corporate (ab)use of personal data (for instance, efforts at prediction by companies such as Amazon and Netflix become the same as corporate manipulation and coercion, not allowing for much potential human agency).

Key Takeaways:

  • Technological progress: if something is technologically feasible, it will likely happen.
  • Broken systems: the people that make the rules have no incentive to act against them (and fix the system).
  • Access to information within an organization is often disproportionate to formal authority and ability to influence decisions.

Key Concepts:

Internet and on-line surveillance

In its early pioneering days, a the Internet was a diverse, anonymous, creative, civil, cooperative and self-selected community, where on-line and off-line identities were mostly not linked. The commercialization of the Internet initially unfolded through e-commerce, but fairly soon companies figured out that the Internet was not only about spending, but also about sharing. Companies quickly monetized people’s urge for online sharing and social exchanges by putting themselves in the middle: the start of surveillance capitalism and the monetization of attention. As online communities formed and expanded, people were increasingly willing to give up personal data in return for easy access and usage.

Technology and complacency

Using technology you don’t understand is to accept its power over you. You accept that you can only work, when the technology works. The tendency to accept this is greater when the cost of replacing a new machine is lower than the cost of having it fixed or the costs of fixing it yourself, resulting in complacency and a general lack of self-reliance.

Post 9/11 cultural change

The events of 9/11 drove a broad cultural transformation and rise in patriotism. Snowden claims this resulted in the transformation of the US into a authoritative security state, where obedience was expected and demanded.

Broken systems, dwindling oversight

The operations of the US intelligence community are supported by the “Deep State”, close to 3 million non-elected career government officials that assist the elected “amateurs”, providing continuity and stability.

Throughout the last couple of decades, long-term serving career officials have increasingly been replaced by private contractors. In an effort to keep costs down and to stay on track with the latest technological developments, much of the development and maintenance the U.S.’s most sensitive systems was outsourced to external parties.

As career prospects within the civil service became less attractive, many civil servants ended up working for private contractors, leaving the state with limited oversight or understanding of its intelligence apparatus.

Technological progress: mass surveillance

Fundamental rule of technological progress: if something is technologically feasible, it will likely happen. Technological innovation tends to outpace moral, ethical and legal restraints and complex technologies can have many unintended consequences.

Corporate surveillance and government surveillance share similar objectives, logging and monetizing people’s habits and preferences. People become subjects of state targeting and corporate advertising.

Redefinition of intelligence collection: permanency

There is no point in collecting anything, unless at some point it can become useful (NSA). Therefore, the ultimate aim of intelligence collection is permanency.

Combination of the ubiquity of surveillance with permanency of storage

  • Sniff it all: finding a data source.
  • Know it all: finding out what the data is.
  • Collect it all: capturing the data.
  • Process it all: analyzing the data for usable intelligence.
  • Exploit it all: using the intelligence generated.
  • Partner it all: sharing it with allies.

Is this an issue? Would you rather allow people into your house or into your phone.

Broken systems, not corrected

People that create the rules within a system have no incentive to act against themselves. This becomes an issue when the system is broken.

All three branches of the government failed in their oversight of the intelligence community in a deliberate and coordinated manner:

  • Legislative branch: abandoned oversight, shrinking the number of people involved, having mostly closed door meetings, faced with intelligence agencies unwilling to provide information or cooperate.
  • Judiciary branch: granting of individual warrants became overly accommodating, rubber-stamping rather than providing judiciary oversight. Allowing for programmatic mass, rather than individual, surveillance: secret court upholding secret programs by secretly re-interpreting federal law.
  • Executive branch: committed the original sin of secretly ordering mass surveillance by executive order post 9/11, executive over-reach, acting unilaterally to establish policy directives that bypass the legal process and can’t be challenged due to their secret classification.

Potential for oppression and censorship

In a liberal democratic society, government needs to be answerable to its people: individual rights are inborn and granted to the state only through a renewable covenant of consent. There are legal limits to the powers of the state, designed to make it harder for them to do their job: for instance, where an individual’s privacy is invaded by the state, a specific warrant is needed.

In authoritarian states, the opposite is true: the state has absolute power and may grant its citizens some rights, demanding loyalty, obedience and occasionally granting permission.

Liberal democratic societies only function if the three branches of government work.

Leaking versus whistleblowing

Leaking is the release of information to further a specific agenda. The act of disclosure out of self-interest, not common interest, pursuing selective institutional or political aims. Done on an ongoing basis by political and government actors on an authorized or unauthorized basis.

Whistleblowing occurs when someone decides that reform from within an institution is impossible, and the only option to reform the institution is through public pressure brought on by the release of information. It occurs when someone has decided that his life within an institution is no longer compatible with the principles developed in and loyalty owed to society, to which the institution is accountable.

Whistleblowing and modern technology

Digital technology highlights organizational imbalances between access to information (lower ranks) and ability to control, incentive to change (higher ranks). Access to information is grossly disproportionate to formal authority and ability to influence decisions. Difference between intended to know (low) and able to know (high) and ability to influence internally (low) and externally through whistleblowing (high).

Changes in society

The release of information (whistleblowing, leaks) has led to a vast increase in the amount of  encrypted information on the internet, an increased awareness of privacy, privacy laws and the ownership of data.

Other observations

  • (Video) games: combine competition and curiosity; ability to adapt, survive and create order out of uncertainty.
  • Prediction: intelligence is about digital prediction. Data is used to detect patterns and extrapolate behaviors to come.
  • Background check: not looking for what you may have done wrong, but what you may have to hide (that can be used to blackmail you).
  • Systems: where the fault appears, is rarely where the fault is.
  • Meta-data: get the bigger picture (population) as well as the smaller picture (individual habits).

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