My Broken Privacy Record [Repost]
My thoughts on Edward Snowden's Permanent Record
I attended a bookclub discussion (Tech Law and Policy) about Edward Snowden’s Permanent Record today. On my main website, I had written my thoughts about the book, and I thought I would revisit it and share via the newsletter too. This book is an important read if you’re someone who is interested in digital rights.
This was originally published on June 16, 2020
The beginning of every episode in Person of Interest starts off with a narration by one of the protagonists (a reclusive software billionaire – Harold Finch).
“You are being watched. The government has a secret system: a machine that spies on you every hour of every day. I know, because I built it. I designed the machine to detect acts of terror, but it sees everything. Violent crimes involving ordinary people; people like you. Crimes the government considered 'irrelevant'. They wouldn't act, so I decided I would. But I needed a partner, someone with the skills to intervene. Hunted by the authorities, we work in secret. You'll never find us, but victim or perpetrator, if your number's up... we'll find you.”
The show premiered on September 22, 2011 (a decade after the 9/11 attacks). It’s a sci-fi crime drama series and from the beginning, the show delves into the various complex moral issues. It explores the relationship between power, security and privacy. There are some great episodes about “the greater good” and how to act with limited information.
At the time I had started watching, 2 seasons were already out. I torrented the episodes and binge-watched (back then, I didn’t know watching multiple episodes continuously was known as binge-watching) both the seasons.
One of the episodes is titled “No Good Deed”. It came out in May 2012. In the episode, a National Security Agency whistleblower is targeted for his efforts to expose the government’s efforts to engage in illegal mass surveillance. A year later in 2013, the writers of the show had a surreal experience.
The Guardian had just released a series of reports revealing the state of illegal mass surveillance by the western world. The world was getting to know the individual who led to these revelations. This is how the video that Guardian releases starts:
“Uh, my name is Ed Snowden. I’m, ah, twenty-nine years old.”
Edward Snowden had just tipped off the journalists about the biggest illegal mass surveillance program in humanity’s history.
The writers of the show had to spend their morning adjusting to the idea that their “sci-fi grounded show” had just become a lot more real. And me? As a big fan of the show, I had just begun the descent into hyper-awareness (or borderline paranoia).
I am a private person (at least I like to think so). One of the reasons why I enjoyed Person of Interest was because, much like the character Harold Finch, I was also reserved by nature. I didn’t like crowds or going out much. I didn’t have too many photos of myself (apart from the ones my parents took of me as an adorable kid). I didn’t interact with strangers whatsoever and was completely fine by myself. I didn’t publish personal stuff online either.
My memory of that period is a bit hazy and foggy (unlike the tools used by the NSA). I do know that I started to research on how to access the internet “privately”. I started looking up articles on how to erase my digital presence (tip: deleting your accounts isn’t enough). I started reading up about Tor and the “Dark Net”. At the time, the only social media site I used was Facebook. Unlike others (who probably used it as a way to document their life), I was in it for the memes and the games (Farmville, Social City and some café game I can’t remember but Facebook does). I started to use VPN to access sites. I would create fake email IDs if I had to log in or sign up for something. I stopped using Facebook for a bit (I was at level 52 in Social City, top of my game and gave that up). I was always watching my back.
Of course, my paranoia about my privacy gradually began to wane. I stopped looking to such “serious and extreme” things like deleting my digital presence or figuring out ways to live without being on the grid.
The reason I stopped was simple. The internet had too much to offer to me at the time (and still does). I wanted to read stuff, explore and ask random questions on Google/YouTube. I could connect with my friends and these weren’t things I was willing to give up. I did become kind of apathetic to living a life like Edward Snowden or Harold Finch. It wasn’t possible. I still believed in the idea of privacy, but I was a 15 year old at the time and I wanted to constantly access the internet.
Over the last few years, I have seen the proliferation of big tech into our lives. We use our tech now, more than ever. Everything is linked to some or the other server. With a bit of legal knowledge that I got while studying in law school I came to realise just how the decks of surveillance was always stacked against us. From believing in the idea of privacy, I soon gave up on privacy. I believed it was dead for all practical purposes. I had grown tired of constantly giving access to all of my digital records, whenever I signed into something. Monetizing our usage of technology had become so entrenched in our lives, that I didn’t see the benefit of telling websites to merely stop collecting cookies on me. No matter the scale of the revelations of Edward Snowden, or the stuff about Cambridge Analytica, or the constant data breaches, so many people around me also didn’t seem to care. I too stopped.
It had been a while since I thought about privacy. I noticed that Edward Snowden had released a new book – The Permanent Record. I immediately purchased it, after logging into Amazon, giving it my debit card details, and address for delivery. The book is a memoir of his life. It is the story of Edward Snowden’s life leading up to the time he blew the whistle on the United States government-his childhood, his teen years, his twenties.
In the book, Snowden mentions how his journey into the intelligence community started after the 9/11 crisis. (Quite a parallel, when I think about how I am reading the book during another crisis facing the world). In the book, Snowden describes his past as a kid who just loved using the computer and internet in its purest form, about how he learned how to “hack” the school system, just to get minimum grades so that he could do other things with his time, like teaching himself how to code.
“In the 1990s, the Internet had yet to fall victim to the greatest iniquity in digital history: the move by both government and businesses to link, as intimately as possible, users’ online personas to their offline legal identity.”
He soon joins the community as a way to serve his nation from threats outside, using the tools he best knew – encryption and security. It soon progresses into something beyond just a call to duty. The most pivotal part of the book is when Snowden comes to the realization that the government he swore to work for, was conducting mass surveillance.
“Instead, 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.”
He delves deep into the manners in which this type of surveillance works. He describes some the of the prominent government programs, of how they are constantly watching you. The places you’ve been to, the people you have met, the messages you’ve sent, the photos and documents that you read, everything is tracked through hidden means that are invisible to our eyes. They always collect and index every part of your life, forever.
To put it simply in Snowden’s words – “Which means that if you’re reading this now—this sentence—on any sort of modern machine, like a smartphone or tablet, they can follow along and read you.”
You might have hazy memories of your life when you grow older. You might not remember what you said when you were a teenager. But the NSA will. It has a permanent record of who you are, who you were, and whatever you become in the future, it’s going to keep track of that too. There’s something unnerving and chilling about a government agency having more information about you than you yourself do.
The book reminded me of something, I had forgotten for a long time - how pervasive and unfair this surveillance was. As Edward Snowden puts it, the NSA hacked the constitution and all of its safeguards. Snowden was making an ever bigger point. We had accepted this state of affairs and as a result, reduced our own control over our lives. One of my favorite passages in the book, is why he believes Privacy matters, I am going to put that down as is;
“There is, simply, no way, to ignore privacy. Because a citizenry’s freedoms are interdependent, to surrender your own privacy is really to surrender everyone’s. You might choose to give it up out of convenience, or under the popular pretext that privacy is only required by those who have something to hide. But saying that you don’t need or want privacy because you have nothing to hide is to assume that no one should have, or could have to hide anything – including their immigration status, unemployment history, financial history, and health records. You’re assuming that no one, including yourself, might object to revealing to anyone information about their religious beliefs, political affiliations and sexual activities, as casually as some choose to reveal their movie and music tastes and reading preferences. Ultimately, saying that you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different from saying you don’t care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say. Or that you don’t care about freedom of the press because you don’t like to read. Or that you don’t care about freedom of religion because you don’t believe in God. Or that you don’t care about the freedom to peaceably assemble because you’re a lazy, antisocial agoraphobe.“
We can’t live without tech anymore. There is no denying that. The permanence of data collection and lack of control over what is intimate in our lives means that we definitely are entering a world where it’s becoming easier and easier for people to influence us and the choices that we make, which means that it will always be a struggle to maintain privacy.
It is especially quite hard to believe in privacy when you are always surrounded by governments, companies and institutions that strive to build an architecture of mass surveillance at opportune moments (read: CoVID 19). However, I don’t think we should be apathetic about it and lose hope anymore. The importance of privacy is slowly fading from our collective memories, but, The Permanent Record reminds you how it’s important to not forget the values that you believe in. That privacy is something we must try our best to stand for.