Book Note: Edward Snowden’s “Permanent Record”

Edward Snowden’s book is about many things. It is about the life of a spy. It is about the development of the internet. It is about the mass surveillance he attribute to the US government and the obliging Five Eyes. It is about the importance of securing digital communication. It is also, I would suggest, about something he doesn’t name directly: it is about his search for grace.

Snowden’s book Permanent Record was published late in 2019. It’s a good book, a fascinating read, a tail of international espionage. Snowden hits the right balance in introducing us (general readers) to the terms of art used by technologists and intelligence agencies, while never losing track of the overall story that interests us.

Permanent Record is a book of our time. As much of the action takes place online as in physical space. It’s also a book of our time in its recounting of one generation’s moral formation. For instance, Snowden recounts the lessons learned from playing the original Mario Brothers video game: you can never go back (that game always scrolls to the right). It is also a book our time in the way it moves about the global stage with minimal effort. Snowden’s work with various intelligence agencies takes him to a variety of locations. The surveillance system in which he participates involves a number of cooperative countries and entails spying on individuals from a host of others.

At the center of the book, though, is a contemporary search for grace. This theme runs throughout the narrative. Snowden tells us that deleting an electronic file is essentially impossible. He tells us that anything we have ever done online remains available, at least to those with the keys. He tells us that spy agencies have erected an intelligence infrastructure designed to save every bit of data run through the web—forever. None of us and nothing we’ve done can ever be forgotten.

One lesson from this, and it isn’t a bad lesson at all, is just that we should smarten up. Don’t write dumb comments in chat forums—or comments that might one day be interpreted as dumb. Don’t take compromising photos—or photos that one day could be interpreted as compromising. Don’t search for anything online that might betray moral weakness—or anything that might one day be interpreted as moral weakness. But Snowden wants something more. He was the things we have done to be forgotten. Failing that, he wants us to be able to move about with anonymity. More prosaically, he wants us to own our data. In some countries a person does own the data connected to them. In others the companies that generate this data are the legal owners. In some places ownership is unspecified.

Personal ownership of personal data make sense. The right to be forgotten and the right to anonymity are suggestions of a different order though. There are things that people do, harmful things, that should not simply be forgotten. And there are things that people do for which anonymity should not be a legal or moral shield. A better present or future will not be had by denying culpability nor by maintaining technological systems that allow us to evade it.

What Permanent Record demonstrates, however, is that law inevitably lags behind technological capability. It’s a dog chasing its tail. We need something deeper, something more universal, something with wider application. What we need is patience and grace. I think this is what Snowden is after. He is looking for states to adhere to constitutions and laws, even when various expediencies would tempt them to do otherwise. But more personally, closer to home, there appears to be a search for a way of being in the world that allows for making mistakes and not being ruined.

Online data gives us facts—search terms, locations, call logs, email contents—but it does not give us access to the internal world. And it does not give us access to patience, to development or to wisdom. Those are the fleeting things I see in Permanent Record. They flutter across almost every page, though often just through the corner. Patience, grace, wisdom—the internet cannot create these virtues, but the internet becomes a dark place without them.

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