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Permanent Record by Edward Snowden

Updated: Mar 21, 2021

2019, Macmillan

I highly recommend this book about how our personal data is processed, stored, and made available to governments and companies who do not prioritize our best interests or our constitutional rights.

Maybe you don’t care about protecting your data, you’ve got nothing to hide, right? But “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." (Snowden, p. 209)

Snowden sheds light on how the Internet can be used to threaten personal privacy. While at first the anonymous nature of the Net opened the way for increased freedom and equality, this freedom turned into the possibility, then the reality, of mass surveillance.

Snowden starts with his personal history: He has always loved computers, his family is descended from the earliest European settlers in America, a long line of patriotic government workers. I skipped over a few pages here not finding it pertinent, but did Post-it this passage about logic. It reminded me of my son Dylan:

I was fascinated by the thought that one individual programmer could code something universal, something bound by no laws or rules or regulations except those essentially reducible to cause and effect. There was an utterly logical relationship between my input and the output. If my input was flawed, the output was flawed ; if my input was flawless, the computer’s output was, too. I’d never before experienced anything so consistent and fair, so unequivocally unbiased. A computer would wait forever to receive my command but would process it the very moment I hit Enter, no questions asked. No teacher had ever been so patient, yet so responsive. Nowhere else—certainly not at school, and not even at home—had I ever felt so in control. That a perfectly written set of commands would perfectly execute the same operations time and again would come to seem to me—as it did to so many smart, tech-inclined children of the millennium—the one stable saving truth of our generation.

As a young but exceptionally talented computer technician, Snowden was soon working for the CIA and the NSA, where he handled highly classified information. His superiors, surpassed by rapid changes in technology, and lacking understanding of security issues and logistics, had begun relying on young analysts, who were often contractors from the private sector.

While at the CIA, Snowden began to realize that there were problems in the system:

I’m a bit ashamed to admit how proud I felt when I first walked (into the CIA). I was decades younger than the help desk folks and heading past them into a vault (of information) to which they didn’t have access and never would. At the time it hadn’t yet occurred to me that the extent of my access meant that the process itself might be broken, that the government had simply given up on meaningfully managing and promoting its talent from within because the new contracting culture meant they no longer had to care…the old-school…clique welcomed a new wave of young hackers into the institutional fold and let them develop, have complete access to, and wield complete power over unparalleled technological systems of state control.

The work of American intelligence is done as frequently by private employees as it is by government servants. This creates a conflict of interest between public service and private profits.

…the real advantage for government officials is the conflict of interest inherent in the budgeting process itself. IC (Intelligence Community) directors ask Congress for money to rent contract workers from private companies, congresspeople approve that money, and then those IC directors and congresspeople are rewarded, after they retire from office, by being given high-paying positions and consultancies with the very companies they’ve just enriched. From the vantage of the corporate boardroom, contracting functions as governmentally assisted corruption. It’s America’s most legal and convenient method of transferring public money to the private purse.

While working for the NSA, Snowden had the opportunity to observe China’s mass surveillance system ("at first I was so impressed by the system’s sheer achievement and audacity that I almost forgot to be appalled by its totalitarian controls"). He quickly realized that the USA had the capability to do the same thing to its citizens and to the world.

Doubts, and Doubts, and allegiance to the Constitution he had sworn an oath to protect, led Snowden to seek and find evidence of mass surveillance attempts by the US government, which he eventually turned over to journalists, resulting in his exile from the USA.

His main finding was the existence of a secret plan, code-named STELLARWIND, which existed in two versions, one unclassified, the other highly classified. The highly classified version, which bore little resemblance to the unclassified one, justified collecting and storing private data for use “just in case”, and simply because the technology for doing so was available. (Why should we do it? Because we can!)

The agency’s mission had been transformed from using technology to defend America to using technology to control it by redefining citizens’ private Internet communications as potential signals intelligence.

The US Government was developing the capacity of an eternal law-enforcement agency. At any time, the government could dig through the past communications of anyone it wanted to victimize in search of a crime (and everybody’s communications contain evidence of something). At any point, for all perpetuity, any new administration—any future rogue head of the NSA—could just show up to work and, as easily as flicking a switch, instantly track everybody with a phone or a computer, know who they were, where they were, what they were doing with whom, and what they had ever done in the past.

In the chapter “Whistleblowing”, Snowden describes how the breakdown of the three branches of government led to impunity for a government who, against the Constitution, claims the right to our personal data.

The constitutional system only functions as a whole if and when each of its three branches works as intended. When all three don’t just fail, but fail deliberately and with coordination, the result is a culture of impunity. I realized that I was crazy to have imagined that the Supreme Court, or Congress, or President Obama(1), seeking to distance his administration from President George W. Bush’s, would ever hold the IC (Intelligence Community) legally responsible—for anything. It was time to face the fact that the IC believed themselves above the law, and given how broken the process was, they were right. The IC had come to understand the rules of our system better than the people who had created it, and they used that knowledge to their advantage.

They’d hacked the Constitution.

(1) Snowden expresses disappointment in the Obama administration for refusing to call for a full congressional investigation into the Bush administration’s surveillance programs, said to be trampling civil liberties.

In this book you can also read: Snowden’s thoughts on the burden of keeping his secret (STELLARWIND) from his girlfriend and family, his contact with journalists and his exile.


Discussion Questions:

Discussion 1: Why does privacy matter?

A few possible answers:

1. Journalism loses objectivity:

"We can’t permit our data to be used to sell us the very things that must not be sold, such as journalism. If we do, the journalism we get will be merely the journalism we want, or the journalism that the powerful want us to have, not the honest collective conversation that’s necessary."

2. Companies profit from selling our information

3. Governments can control us: algorithms which are first used to predict how we buy, could be used to predict how we will act.

4. Add your ideas.

Discussion 2: What is the Massive Data Repository?

Snowden cites the creation of this government facility, a massive bunker in the Utah desert which can store a humongous amount of data, as the "corpus delicti--the plain-as-day corroboration of a crime". "There was simply no reason to build something to those specs unless you were planning on storing absolutely everything, forever."

It's also known as the Utah Data Center.


Additional material (I have not viewed or listened to content yet):

Joe Rogan with Edward Snowden


My letter to Obama

7 December 2016

President Barack Obama

The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

Washington DC 20500


Dear President Obama,

I’m writing to ask you to pardon Edward Snowden, in recognition of his action undertaken in the public interest, to protect and defend the human rights of the citizens of the USA, and of the entire world.

I’m writing to ask you to please pardon Edward Snowden, and to recognize him as a whistleblower and not as a spy or a traitor.

I’m writing to ask you to Do the Right Thing!

Thank you for your consideration.


Kellie Bourque

No answer was received.

46 views6 comments


May 25, 2020

Not to mention this:


May 25, 2020

To go along with Yvonne's comment, I'm posting this link about Erik Prince and Blackwater, for information for anyone who doesn't know much about it (like me). Thanks Yvonne.


May 25, 2020

the government had simply given up on meaningfully managing and promoting its talent from within because the new contracting culture meant they no longer had to care…

Not sure I agree with this. Yes, the government has given up on creating and promoting talent from within due to contracting, but I feel this is more due to decades of republicans maligning government's effectiveness while at the same time trying to shrink it, but also actively encouraging private for profit companies to replace government under the pretext that they are more efficient. They are not. What's scarier to me is the outsourcing of the military (see Erik Prince and Blackwater). As Snowden says, the system has now become a revolving door…


Thanks for posting this!! I had wanted to read this and forgot about it. Going to buy it now!


Kat Becker
Kat Becker
Jan 14, 2020

Excellent Stuff!! Bravo!

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