Permanent Record

Permanent Record
Published: 9/17/2019
Edward Snowden, the man who risked everything to expose the US government’s system of mass surveillance, reveals for the first time the story of his life, including how he helped to build that system and what motivated him to try to bring it down.

Permanent Record by Edward Snowden

Part One

Family Origins

Born in 1983 in North Carolina, he came from a patriotic family with a strong military background. His grandfather served in the F.B.I., his father was an engineer in the coast guard, and his mother was an administrator in the NSA. He showed early tendencies of both patriotism and questioning authority.

Early Interest in “Hacking”

At an early age, Snowden expressed a knack for hacking, which he describes as exploiting any system’s weaknesses to your own advantage, and not just skill in computers. For instance, on his sixth birthday, he didn’t want to go to bed at the time his parents said, so he got around his bedtime instructions by turning all the clocks in the house back a few hours. And in school, he figured out how to maintain a B average without doing homework, all so he could spend more time with computers. It became one of Snowden’s favorite hobbies to exploit weaknesses in the rules that adults placed on him, or use their own logic against them.

Early Talent with Computer Programming

Snowden was in love with the internet of the 1990s and developed a rare talent for computers. At one point, in high school, he discovered a security flaw in the Los Alamos National Laboratory website. He called the lab to notify them of this and later received a call from a man thanking him and offering a job when he turns 18.

Diagnosis of Mononucleosis and Dropout of High School

At the beginning of his sophomore year, he found himself unusually fatigued and was diagnosed with mononucleosis. He missed four months of classes and decided to drop out of high school, acquire his GED, and enroll in community college.

The decision to Serve His Country

After 9/11, he witnesses the frenzied evacuation of NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, and decided he wanted to serve his country. At first, he tried to join the Army special forces, but during training he fractured his ankle, ending his military career just as it began. In the book, Snowden describes his greatest regret of this time as his unquestioning support for the War on Terror and helping to support corrupt government policies.

Decision to Pursue a Career in US Intelligence

While he was recovering from his training injury at home, he realized he could serve his country with his computer skills and decided to go back to school to get a secret clearance and seek tech positions with the NSA or CIA.

First Love and First Job at NSA

At the age of 22, while taking classes at the University of Maryland, he met the love of his life on the internet, on a website called HotorNot. Her name was Lindsay Mills and she was a photography student from another part of Maryland. The two started dating. Soon after, Snowden acquired his security clearance and started working as a security guard at the NSA.

Part Two

First Contracting Job

Snowden wanted to serve his country in a better way, so he went to government job fairs, where tech companies recruit talent for government jobs in their name. Through a company called COMSO, Snowden landed his first contracting job as a systems administrator at CIA headquarters in Virginia. He spent several months managing the agency’s private servers.

Effect of 9/11 on Snowden’s Rise in Intelligence

Because of 9/11, the CIA and NSA were in need of computer talent, and this allowed Snowden to rise in the Intelligence community without a college degree.

Snowden’s Experience in the CIA

He decided he wanted to see more of the world, so he enrolled in a six-month program to become a CIA Information Security Officer, a position employed at every US embassy around the world. During his training for this position, he made the mistake of questioning authority. The living conditions in the rundown motel were unpleasant for students. Snowden wrote directly to the Field Director to complain. To Snowden’s surprise, it worked, and soon after the class was moved to a new training facility. But on the last day of class, Snowden was told that by communicating with the Field director directly, he had disobeyed the chain of command. As punishment, he was denied his preference of working in the middle east and was instead sent to Geneva, Switzerland, where he was responsible for maintaining computer-network security. He worked in Geneva from 2007 to 2009 and then resigned from the CIA.

First Discovery of Potential Violations of US Public Privacy

Shortly after his resignation from the CIA, he took a job as a contractor for the NSA in Japan. He worked at the NSA's Pacific Technical Center, at Yokota Air Base, where his job was to help connect the NSA's systems architecture with the CIA's.

In 2009, he was asked last-minute to attend a conference in Hong Kong, after a colleague had dropped out, to give a presentation on China’s surveillance of private communications. In a matter of hours, he had to read up on the technology China used to monitor its citizen’s online activity, emails, and phone calls. He thought, if China was spying on its citizens, why wouldn’t the US do the same? It was then that he discovered what he had helped to create.

Investigating Privacy Concerns

At this time he fully supported defensive and targeted surveillance, but he decided to look into it for himself. He knew from whistleblowers that the US government sometimes overstepped its bounds, such as the recent public release of the President’s Surveillance Program (PSP), which allowed intelligence agencies to wiretap phone calls without a warrant. He decided to search the NSA for the classified version, but it was nowhere to be found.

The Confirmation of Privacy Violations

Later, a document landed on his desk detailing a program called STELLARWIND, which enabled the government to spy on anyone as they pleased, or more specifically, aimed for the bulk collection of anyone and everyone’s phone and online browsing history. The system collected people’s conversations, including when, where, and with whom they had taken place.

Dealing with the Burden of Secrecy

Snowden recalls trying to rationalize the discovery. He moved to Maryland in 2011, to work for the CIA, but this time tried to have a more normal job in sales and tried to distract himself with his disturbing secret. He became depressed and began expressing his concerns to his girlfriend, Lindsay. Also, he began experiencing intense dizziness and epileptic seizures. Following a series of seizures, he took some short-term disability leave from work. During this time, while staying with his mother, he reflected on the context of his work and influence on privacy violations as the 2011 Arab Spring erupted.

Part Three

Return to Work

In March 2012, he moved to Oahu, Hawaii, to work in a place called “The Tunnel”, a former aircraft factory turned NSA facility.

"Deep in a tunnel under a pineapple field, I sat at a terminal from which I had practically unlimited access to the communications of nearly every man, woman and child on earth who'd ever dialed a phone or touched a computer." - Snowden

The US Constitution and the Fourth Amendment

Upon reading the US Constitution, Snowden was shaken to see how clearly the Fourth Amendment stated citizen’s rights to privacy. As a joke, he started leaving copies of the constitution on coworker’s desks. He became convinced that NSA surveillance wasn’t making people safer as much as creating risk and violating people’s freedoms. He decided to take action. At first, he wanted to learn everything about the NSA’s surveillance program, but soon he decided that the American people had a right to know.

"I was resolved to bring to light a single, all-encompassing fact: that my government had developed and deployed a global system of mass surveillance without the knowledge or consent of its citizenry," - Snowden

Searching the NSA for Data on Privacy Violations

He used his talent for hacking to gather information without compromising other intelligence operations. He even wrote a program to help him browse the NSA, called “Heartbeat”, which compiled all new and important reports into a single newsfeed.

Gathering the Documents for Public Release

He knew that any move he made on the network would be monitored by the agency, so he downloaded files onto some unused computers that weren’t being monitored, making it look like he was doing something technically important, calling it “compatibility testing”. On these unused computers, he could safely search and organize the documents for release without being monitored. To get the files out of the building he downloaded them onto SD cards and hid them in Rubik's cubes that he started carrying around. The security guards began calling him “Rubik’s cube guy”.

Finding Trustworthy Journalists

It was important to him that such information is provided to US journalists who could be trusted. After an extensive search, he decided on two reporters who had already dealt with concerns of government violations: Glen Greenwald and Laura Poitras. To stay anonymous, he communicated with them under the aliases "Cincinnatus", "Citizenfour" and "Verax", sending messages over WiFi while driving his car around, using local Wi-Fi networks.

Getting More Data on Privacy Violations

Snowden had also heard of fellow employees using a search engine called XKEYSCORE, which searched the data collected on STELLARWIND. XKEYSCORE allowed agents to look up anyone’s online history with merely a name or IP address. He decided he wanted to learn more about XKEYSCORE, so in 2013 he requested a transfer to become an "infrastructure analyst" at the National Threat Operations Center in Honolulu. There he was trained to use the system, and he secretly gathered data to inform the public.

The Escape

Snowden knew the NSA would trace everything back to him once the information was released to the public, because too few people had access to such information. So on March 2013, Snowden swiftly began preparing to leave the country. He emptied his bank accounts and erased his old computers. He researched his safest destination, deciding on Hong Kong.

He couldn’t tell anyone he knew, and while his girlfriend Lindsay was gone camping, he took an emergency medical leave of absence from work, citing epilepsy, and then paid cash to fly to Tokyo and then to Hong Kong.

Meeting the Journalists

While in Hong Kong, he met with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras. In Snowden's hotel room, Greewald interviewed Snowden for the Guardian, and Laura filmed what would become her documentary CitizenFour.

Public Release

On June 6th, 2013, Greenwald’s first story about the NSA’s surveillance program first appeared in the Guardian. Snowden then outed himself as a whistleblower to beat the US government to it. On June 14th, the U.S. government charged Snowden under the Espionage Act, and on June 21st, Snowden's 30th birthday, the US government formally requested his extradition. Snowden immediately began seeking political asylum.

Seeking Political Asylum

US Wikileaks editor Sean Harrison organized for Snowden to have political asylum in Ecuador, just as Julian Assange was before. To avoid US airspace, Snowden would have to fly to Moscow, then to Havana, then to Caracas, then to Quito, Ecuador. But when they arrived in Moscow, they were stopped by Russian Authorities. The Russians asked Snowden to work for them, but Snowden rejected the offer and said he had no intention to stay in Russia. The Russians informed Snowden that his passport had been revoked by the US State Department. Snowden was trapped in Russia.

Stuck in Russia

While detained in Sheremetyevo Airport for forty days, surrounded by reporters, Snowden applied to twenty-seven countries for political asylum, but none offered. On August 1st, the Russian government granted Snowden temporary asylum. He’s been in Russia ever since.

Final Points

At the end of the book, Snowden reflects on his decision and experience, including and his hopes for the future of technology and privacy, as well as adjusting to life in Russia. His girlfriend Lindsay Mills went to live with him in Moscow and the two were married in 2017.

About the author

Edward Snowden is an American whistleblower. As a CIA employee and subcontractor, he leaked classified information about the NSA. He exposed several global surveillance programs run by the NSA and the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance, who worked with telecommunication companies and European governments to infringe on the privacy of Americans. His action prompted an international discussion about privacy and national security.

Snowden was hired by the NSA after working for Dell and the CIA. He raised his concerns internally but was ignored. He leaked classified documents to journalists Glenn Greenwalk, Laura Poitras, and Ewen Masskill. His story appeared on The Guardian, The Washington Post and The New York Times. On June 21, 2013, after Snowden flew to Hong Kong, the United States Department of Justice charged Snowden with two counts of violating the Espionage Act of 1917 and theft of government property. He then arrived in Moscow two days later. Russia provided Snowden with the right of asylum with an initial visa for residence for one year. He has been able to stay in Russia at least until 2020. In 2017, he married his girlfriend, Lindsay, and lives in Moscow. His memoir Permanent Record was published in September of 2019. The US Department of Justice sued him over the publication of his memoir, alleging breach of non-disclosure agreements.


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