The young man who rattled the American regime
His name is Edward Joseph Snowden. He was merely 29 years old in 2013 when he took on the most powerful nation in the world. ‘Permanent Record’ is Snowden's autobiography which narrates this revolt. This is a classic by all means. We don’t get classics that often. They are the texts that walk infront of us as a guide and light in times of conflicts and chaos. ‘1984’, the classic novel by George Orwell was published in 1949. We simply can’t help but marvel at the foresight of Orwell while reading Snowden's magnum opus 70 years after ‘1984’ hit the world.
''My name is Edward Joseph Snowden. I used to work for the government, but now I work for the public.'' Snowden kicks off his story with these words. It took three decades for Snowden to realise the distinction between the government and the public. That moment of awakening dawned up on Snowden in 2009. Snowden was then in Tokyo. Sitting at the base of the American Intelligence Community (AIC), Snowden was filtering the innumerable layers of secret files that were coming from different parts of the world.
The revelation manifested in the form of a file which landed on Snowden's computer. One of the high level officers at N S A (National Security Agency) headquarters had just forgotten to close this most classified document in the history of the American Intelligence Community. That was the document that empowered the IC to infringe into the most private world of the citizens all over the world. American regime was revealing itself in all its might and power. The cosmic dance of power shook Snowden from bottom to top. Snowden calls it the atomic moment in his life.
Snowden's fight against the American regime started there. ''The freedom of a country can only be measured by its respect for the rights of its citizens, and it's my conviction that these rights are in fact limitations of state power that define exactly where and when a government may not infringe into that domain of personal or individual freedoms that during the American revolution was called 'liberty' and during the internet revolution is called 'privacy'. ''The young 29 years old chap was bewildered to the core knowing how a government was trampling up on privacy which was the foremost freedom of human beings.
The childhood before internet
Snowden belonged to that generation of Americans whose childhood was the last one before the arrival of the internet. Snowden vividly recalls the way his growth was marked on the wooden walls of his home. It is really funny to know that during one of those days the little kid Snowden turned back all the clocks in his house to get more time watching TV. The days when the first computer and first video game were brought home are etched in his memory.
Then came the internet. And Snowden became Snowden on that technological revolution. A world of limitless freedom. It opened the gates of countless opportunities to live life differently and anonymously. “Imagine, if you will, that you could wake up every morning and pick a new name and a new face by which to be known to the world. Imagine that you could choose a new voice and new words to speak in it, as if the internet button were actually a reset button for your life. In the new millennium, internet technology would be turned to very different ends: enforcing fidelity to memory, identarian consistency, and so ideological conformity. But back then, for a while at least, it protected us by forgetting our transgressions and forgiving our sins.”
Those were the days of hacking. Kids like Snowden simply broke into the cyber walls of anything and everything. One day Snowden trespassed into the inner layers of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), the foremost nuclear research facility in the US. Snowden didn't want to steal any inner secrets. He just wanted to show how weak was the cyber security of America's leading atomic research centre. Snowden sent a detailed email to the authorities explaining the lacunae in the cyber security. There was no response.
Snowden was in no mood to leave the issue. On one fine day he made a call to the LANL office. The receptionist simply said that the IT guy would call back. Weeks passed. Then one morning the call came. Snowden's mother who took the call was immensely worried as to why someone was enquiring about her young son. Snowden took the call after assuaging her. The IT guy profusely thanked Snowden and assured him that steps were being taken to rectify the issue. Then he asked Snowden what he was doing. Snowden replied that he was a student. Then only it dawned up on the senior officer of LANL that he was talking to a kid.
Pearl Harbour and 9/11
The attacks on Pearl Harbour and world trade centre were the two incidents that terrified and shook the whole of America. When planes were turned into missiles to bring down the world trade centre on September 11, 2001 Snowden too felt violated like any other American. This only propelled him to work for the govt. He felt that he had a responsibility to the public. To young men like Snowden government then was the face of the public. Snowden went for American military. ''When I told my mother, she cried for days. I knew better than to tell my father, who had already made it very clear during the hypothetical discussions that I'd be wasting my identical talents there. I was twenty years old; I knew what I was doing. The day I left, I wrote my father a letter - handwritten, not typed - that explained my decision, and slipped it under the front door of his apartment. It closed with a statement that still makes me wince. I am sorry, Dad, I wrote, but this is vital for my personal growth. ''
Snowden's stint with the army was very short. A freak accident in one of the training sessions packed him off back home. It was then that the offers came from the American Intelligence Community. Computer and internet revolutionised the world of spying. The American IC required young technical wizards to tackle this emerging scenario. Many of these young chaps were college dropouts. They didn't feel the urge to hold a degree to pursue what they wanted. This was a reality that CIA and NSA couldn't ignore. And this opened the gates of the IC to Snowden. Officially he was an employee of Dell but that was only a cover. The real employers were CIA and NSA.
Snowden demanded 50,000 per year. The guy who recruited made it 62,000. Snowden was baffled. But very soon he came to know that the more the salary the more the commission was to the recruiting agency. ''Bumping up salaries was in everyone's interest - everyone's, that is, except the taxpayers.''
Snowden met Lindsay Mills one of those days. She was the solace and sustenance Snowden always turned to when life became an intense struggle against the tyrannical regime. She stood over him like clouds over sunshine and moonlight in darkness. They got married in Moscow in 2017 when Snowden had to flee from the clutches of the US govt.
The epiphany in Tokyo
Snowden became the Buddha in Tokyo. He called it his atomic moment. He was no longer the old Snowden who confused government with public. The knowledge that American regime was infringing on the privacy of the public so blatantly sent shivers down his spine. Snowden explains in detail how America controls almost 90% of the internet traffic. Computer software (MicroSoft, Google, Oracle), hardware (HP, Apple, Dell), chips (Intel, Qualcomm) you name it - all the corporates that deal with the internet and computers are American institutions. They might have manufacturing facilities in China. But ultimately they are all subjected to the American law. If the American regime decides to put these under the scanner, then that obviously means the data that these companies hold could very well be open books before them.
His profession demanded to know more about what the child was doing in the field of surveillance. China was really much ahead in this. But being a totalitarian state what China was doing was nothing unusual. What astonished Snowden was the revelation of America's own surveillance system. "What China was doing publicly to its citizens, America might be - could be - doing secretly to the world.''
Data based on census gives immense power to the regimes over its populace. The Stalin regime in erstwhile Soviet Russia could easily identify Usbeks, Kasakhs, Armenians and other sub regional people on the basis of the data collected from the census in 1926. The census that was carried out in Nazi Germany in 1933 is another example.
The Hitler regime conducted this census with the help of computer technology provided by the earlier versions of IBM. The 22nd column targeted religion. Number 1 meant Protestants, no 2 Catholics and no 3 Jews. This info gathered from the census was the main source to identify the Jews who were sent to the concentration camps. The fear that comes out of the CAA and NRC in India has to be read in this context.
Now the identification process is so fast and easy. ''Once the ubiquity of collections was combined with the permanency of storage, all any government had to do was select a person or a group to scapegoat and go searching- as I had gone searching through the agency's files - for evidence of a suitable crime.''
Snowden has his own style of telling things. Just see how he describes the disappearance of the internet that electrified and enriched his youth creatively. ''The internet that I had grown up with, the internet that had raised me was disappearing. And with it, so was my youth, self expression now required such strong self protection as to obviate its liberties and nullify its pleasures. Every communication was a matter not of creativity but of safety. Every transaction was a potential danger.''
Internet has changed the way we communicate. Whatever we write now is written as if it were on a stone. It just doesn’t fade or crumble. Even if we delete it from our computers and mobile phones it will be there in the hard disks and the inner layers of servers. It is a permanent record. The fact that these records could be stored for infinite and could be used against anyone who turns rebellious is the toughest challenge that democracy and privacy face right now.
Is there anyone who has never committed a crime on this earth? There will be at least one smear on anyone and everyone. ''Everyone has something, some compromising information buried among their bytes - if not in their files then in their email, if not in their email then in their browsing history. And now this information was being stored by the US govt.''
The American IC can tap into any phone call and email across the world. The moment any suspicious activity is noted by the computers of the CIA or NSA, they will activate the malicious software (malware) which will be sent to the source of this communication. These malwares are so efficient that they can activate even the phone camera which is switched off. The entire process could very well be over in less than a minute. And then all our lives will be an open book before the authorities. Snowden's revelations make the allegations against the Indian government's supposed surveillance using Pegasus (the malware procured from Israel) all the more frightening.
The Arab Spring that radiated Tunisia
Sacrifice and renunciation make the soul of revolutions. Snowden writes about the Arab spring in this context. The Young man who kicked off the Arab spring was of the same age of Snowden. He was a fruit peddler. He responded against the brutal regime by setting himself on fire. His last act as a free man was his suicide. Snowden asked himself that if this young man could sacrifice his own life at the altar of freedom then why he couldn't press some buttons.
Snowden's revolt was the response to this question. Snowden points out that America was born out of treason. The American Declaration of Independence was a violation of the laws of England. American constitution demands revolt against the authorities if they tend to do something that rubs off the conscience.
A group of sailors revolted similarly in 1777. They were the first whistleblowers in the history of America. During the revolution, it came to their notice that Commodore Hopkins of USS Warren was ill-treating the British prisoners. They brought it to the notice of the Marine Committee. When Commodore Hopkins came to know this he reacted more violently. He fired the sailors and filed a libel against the two officers who led the charge. Then another sailor by the name John Granis broke the ranks and approached the Continental Congress against this colossal injustice. The Continental Congress got shocked over the revelation of the commodore's undemocratic act. They dismissed Hopkins in 1778. They also ordered to pay the sailors the legal fees. The very first act to protect whistleblowers was also formulated then and there. Snowden was hugely inspired by this act. One book that he always kept on his table was the American Constitution.
To Hong Kong in search of a base
Snowden knew the immensity of the challenge. He was fighting against the most powerful regime on the earth. The fight was extraordinary and it demanded extra ordinary preparations. He had decided to hand over the documents of evidence to journalists instead of going public himself. That in turn demanded credible journalists who wouldn't make any compromises with the regime. The search ended at the doors of the Guardian and the Washington Post.
Snowden didn't reveal anything even to his most beloved friend Lindsay Mills. Snowden was a walking Volcano. Lindsay felt the heat but couldn't recognise what was really boiling with in her lover. Let us come to Snowden's own words "The preparations I was making were those of a man about to die. I emptied my bank accounts, putting cash into an old steel ammo box for Lindsay to find so that the government couldn't seize it. I erased and encrypted my old computers, reducing them the silent husks of better times.''
Snowden never used his own ID for this. He hacked into the IDs of malls, theatres and many other public spaces and sent the messages and info through them. Snowden wanted to protect himself from the watchful eyes of the IC. Snowden chose Hong Kong as the place from where he would expose America in person. Hong Kong was a state where America had minimal influence. Even Though it was under the control of China, Hong Kong was not fully subjected to the whims and fancies of the Chinese authorities. There at the Hotel Mira, Snowden finally appeared before the world. The Guardian broke the first story on July 5, 2013. The next day the Washington Post too carried Snowden's revelations.
Snowden had enough hard hitting evidence to expose the dirty face of the US regime. The American regimes from 2001 onwards were shaken to the core in the aftermath of Snowden's attacks. The Obama government stood naked before the whole world losing its face. The guardian aired the first video on June 9. The American regime reacted initially refusing to acknowledge any of Snowden's revelations.
Then It raised the bogey of espionage. Snowden was branded as a double agent of China and triple agent of Russia. He was charged under the Espionage Act. That was the signal for Snowden to get out of Hong Kong in search of political asylum. Ecuador was the only nation that offered shelter to the most dangerous enemy of America. Snowden planned to fly to Ecuador avoiding all air spaces where America had influence. But his journey came to a halt in Moscow. The Russian secret police took him into custody at the Moscow airport. The American government had cancelled his passport while he was flying to Moscow from Hong Kong.
Russia needed the information Snowden knew. But Snowden refused to yield. That resulted in his extended stay at the airport for weeks. Snowden wrote to 27 countries in the meantime seeking asylum. But no one was ready to antagonize America. Eventually Russia herself got ready to provide the shelter. Snowden has been in Moscow since then. Lindsay came to Moscow in 2014. Two years back they got married.
The book of the decade
One need not think twice to pronounce that ‘Permanent Record’ is the book of this decade. When Historians write about 21st century they simply can't ignore Snowden. It was Gandhiji who said that civil disobedience became the duty and responsibility of the citizens when regimes turned in to the citadel of injustice and unrighteousness. ‘Permanent Record’ is the living testimony of one of the most significant revolts of this century. Edward Joseph Snowden is the lamppost in front of all those who believe in humanity and justice.
Three cheers to Democracy! Three cheers to Snowden!