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Preview — Permanent Record by Edward Snowden
What makes a life? More than what we say; more, even, than what we do. A life is also what we love, and what we believe in.
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.”
From The Legend of Zelda, I learned that the world exists to be explored; from Mega Man, I learned that my enemies have much to teach; and from Duck Hunt, well, Duck Hunt taught me that even if someone laughs at your failures, it doesn’t mean you get to shoot them in the face.
Ultimately, though, it was Super Mario Bros. that taught me what remains perhaps the most important lesson of my life.
Life only scrolls in one direction, which is the direction of time, and no matter how far we might manage to go, that invisible wall will always be just behind us, cutting us off from the past, compelling us on into the unknown. A small kid growing up in small-town North Carolina in the 1980s has to get a sense of mortality from somewhere, so why not from two Italian-immigrant plumber brothers with an appetite for sewer mushrooms?
He explained that understanding why and how things had gone wrong was every bit as important as understanding what component had failed: figuring out the why and how would let you prevent the same malfunction from happening again in the future.
I loved these games and the alternative lives they let me live, though love wasn’t quite as liberating for the other members of my family.
Then, he took me aside after class and said, “You should be using that brain of yours not to figure out how to avoid work, but how to do the best work you can. You have so much potential, Ed. But I don’t think you realize that the grades you get here will follow you for the rest of your life. You have to start thinking about your permanent record.”
You should always let people underestimate you. Because when people misappraise your intelligence and abilities, they’re merely pointing out their own vulnerabilities—the gaping holes in their judgment that need to stay open if you want to cartwheel through later on a flaming horse, correcting the record with your sword of justice.
This is why the best account that someone can ever give of themselves is not a statement but a pledge—a pledge to the principles they value, and to the vision of the person they hope to become.
This, by the way, is the best way to “seem normal”: surround yourself with people just as weird, if not weirder, than you are.
Dunbar’s number, the famous estimate of how many relationships you can meaningfully maintain in life, is just 150.
The events of 9/11 left holes. Holes in families, holes in communities. Holes in the ground.
Nearly a hundred thousand spies returned to work at the agencies with the knowledge that they’d failed at their primary job, which was protecting America. Think of the guilt they were feeling. They had the same anger as everybody else, but they also felt the guilt.
Half the things I’d said I hadn’t even meant at the time—I’d just wanted attention—but I didn’t fancy my odds of explaining that to a gray-haired man in horn-rimmed glasses peering over a giant folder labeled PERMANENT RECORD.
This might be the most familiar problem of my generation, the first to grow up online. We were able to discover and explore our identities almost totally unsupervised, with hardly a thought spared for the fact that our rash remarks and profane banter were being preserved for perpetuity, and that one day we might be expected to account for them. I’m sure everyone who had an Internet connection before they had a job can sympathize with this—surely everyone has that one post that embarrasses them, or that text or email that could get them fired.
It would’ve only served to reinforce some of the most corrosive precepts of online life: that nobody is ever allowed to make a mistake, and anybody who does make a mistake must answer for it forever.
We can’t erase the things that shame us, or the ways we’ve shamed ourselves, online. All we can do is control our reactions—whether we let the past oppress us, or accept its lessons, grow, and move on.
For the record, as far as I could tell, aliens have never contacted Earth, or at least they haven’t contacted US intelligence. But al-Qaeda did maintain unusually close ties with our allies the Saudis, a fact that the Bush White House worked suspiciously hard to suppress as we went to war with two other countries.
In case you were wondering: Yes, man really did land on the moon. Climate change is real. Chemtrails are not a thing.
I felt far from home, but monitored. I felt more adult than ever, but also cursed with the knowledge that all of us had been reduced to something like children, who’d be forced to live the rest of our lives under omniscient parental supervision. I felt like a fraud, making excuses to Lindsay to explain my sullenness.
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.
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.
You can’t really appreciate how hard it is to stay anonymous online until you’ve tried to operate as if your life depended on it.
The only way I can end this book is the way I began it: with a dedication to Lindsay, whose love makes life out of exile.