Permanent Record
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Read between November 07 - December 01, 2019
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During that seven-year stint, however, I participated in the most significant change in the history of American espionage—the change from the targeted surveillance of individuals to the mass surveillance of entire populations. I helped make it technologically feasible for a single government to collect all the world’s digital communications, store them for ages, and search through them at will.
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Deep in a tunnel under a pineapple field—a subterranean Pearl Harbor–era former airplane factory—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. Among those people were about 320 million of my fellow American citizens, who in the regular conduct of their everyday lives were being surveilled in gross contravention of not just the Constitution of the United States, but the basic values of any free society.
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Before you recoil, knowing well the toxic madness that infests that hive in our time, understand that for me, when I came to know it, the Internet was a very different thing. It was a friend, and a parent. It was a community without border or limit, one voice and millions, a common frontier that had been settled but not exploited by diverse tribes living amicably enough side by side, each member of which was free to choose their own name and history and customs. Everyone wore masks, and yet this culture of anonymity-through-polyonymy produced more truth than falsehood, because it was creative ...more
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You will understand, then, when I say that the Internet of today is unrecognizable. It’s worth noting that this change has been a conscious choice, the result of a systematic effort on the part of a privileged few. The early rush to turn commerce into e-commerce quickly led to a bubble, and then, just after the turn of the millennium, to a collapse. After that, companies realized that people who went online were far less interested in spending than in sharing, and that the human connection the Internet made possible could be monetized. If most of what people wanted to do online was to be able ...more
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The attempts by elected officials to delegitimize journalism have been aided and abetted by a full-on assault on the principle of truth. What is real is being purposefully conflated with what is fake, through technologies that are capable of scaling that conflation into unprecedented global confusion.
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the creation of irreality has always been the Intelligence Community’s darkest art. The same agencies that, over the span of my career alone, had manipulated intelligence to create a pretext for war—and used illegal policies and a shadow judiciary to permit kidnapping as “extraordinary rendition,” torture as “enhanced interrogation,” and mass surveillance as “bulk collection”—didn’t hesitate for a moment to call me a Chinese double agent, a Russian triple agent, and worse: “a millennial.”
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Ultimately, though, it was Super Mario Bros. that taught me what remains perhaps the most important lesson of my life. I am being perfectly sincere. I am asking you to consider this seriously. Super Mario Bros., the 1.0 edition, is perhaps the all-time masterpiece of side-scrolling games. When the game begins, Mario is standing all the way to the left of the legendary opening screen, and he can only go in one direction: He can only move to the right, as new scenery and enemies scroll in from that side. He progresses through eight worlds of four levels each, all of them governed by time ...more
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He pointed to each of the console’s parts in turn, explaining not just what it was, but what it did, and how it interacted with all the other parts to contribute to the correct working of the mechanism. Only by analyzing a mechanism in its individual parts were you able to determine whether its design was the most efficient to achieve its task. If it was the most efficient, just malfunctioning, then you fixed it. But if not, then you made modifications to improve the mechanism. This was the only proper protocol for repair jobs, according to my father, and nothing about it was optional—in fact, ...more
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Like all my father’s lessons, this one had broad applications beyond our immediate task. Ultimately, it was a lesson in the principle of self-reliance, which my father insisted that America had forgotten sometime between his own childhood and mine. Ours was now a country in which the cost of replacing a broken machine with a newer model was typically lower than the cost of having it fixed by an expert, which itself was typically lower than the cost of sourcing the parts and figuring out how to fix it yourself. This fact alone virtually guaranteed technological tyranny, which was perpetuated ...more
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To this day, I still find the process magical: typing in the commands in all these strange languages that the processor then translates into an experience that’s available not just to me but to everyone.
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My younger readers, with their younger standards, might think of the nascent Internet as way too slow, the nascent Web as too ugly and un-entertaining. But that would be wrong. Back then, being online was another life, considered by most to be separate and distinct from Real Life. The virtual and the actual had not yet merged. And it was up to each individual user to determine for themselves where one ended and the other began.
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Its purpose was to enlighten, not to monetize, and it was administered more by a provisional cluster of perpetually shifting collective norms than by exploitative, globally enforceable terms of service agreements. To this day, I consider the 1990s online to have been the most pleasant and successful anarchy I’ve ever experienced.
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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.
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Kids used to be able to go online and say the dumbest things one day without having to be held accountable for them the next. This might not strike you as the healthiest environment in which to grow up, and yet it is precisely the only environment in which you can grow up—by which I mean that the early Internet’s dissociative opportunities actually encouraged me and those of my generation to change our most deeply held opinions, instead of just digging in and defending them when challenged. This ability to reinvent ourselves meant that we never had to close our minds by picking sides, or close ...more
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All teenagers are hackers. They have to be, if only because their life circumstances are untenable. They think they’re adults, but the adults think they’re kids.
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I realized that any opposition to this system would be difficult, not least because getting its rules changed to serve the interests of the majority would involve persuading the rule makers to put themselves at a purposeful disadvantage. That, ultimately, is the critical flaw or design defect intentionally integrated into every system, in both politics and computing: the people who create the rules have no incentive to act against themselves.
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To hack a system requires getting to know its rules better than the people who created it or are running it, and exploiting all the vulnerable distance between how those people had intended the system to work and how it actually works, or could be made to work. In capitalizing on these unintentional uses, hackers aren’t breaking the rules as much as debunking them.
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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.
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I’ve had friends tell me that you aren’t really an adult until you bury a parent or become one yourself. But what no one ever mentions is that for kids of a certain age, divorce is like both of those happening simultaneously.
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The unexpected blessing of trauma—the opportunity for reinvention—taught me to appreciate the world beyond the four walls of home.
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Dunbar’s number, the famous estimate of how many relationships you can meaningfully maintain in life, is just 150.
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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.
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Distance favors intimacy: no one talks more openly than when they’re alone in a room, chatting with an unseen someone alone in a different room.
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You don’t need to tell a bunch of computer whizzes that they possess superior knowledge and skills that uniquely qualify them to act independently and make decisions on behalf of their fellow citizens without any oversight or review. Nothing inspires arrogance like a lifetime spent controlling machines that are incapable of criticism.
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remember driving home in a confused silence. This wasn’t quite the stunning moonshot tech-future we’d been promised. I was convinced the only reason that thing was Internet-equipped was so that it could report back to its manufacturer about its owner’s usage and about any other household data that was obtainable. The manufacturer, in turn, would monetize that data by selling it. And we were supposed to pay for the privilege.
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America’s fundamental laws exist to make the job of law enforcement not easier but harder. This isn’t a bug, it’s a core feature of democracy. In the American system, law enforcement is expected to protect citizens from one another. In turn, the courts are expected to restrain that power when it’s abused, and to provide redress against the only members of society with the domestic authority to detain, arrest, and use force—including lethal force. Among the most important of these restraints are the prohibitions against law enforcement surveilling private citizens on their property and taking ...more
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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.
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In this case, the technologies behind upstream collection did exist. As I came to realize, these tools are the most invasive elements of the NSA’s mass surveillance system, if only because they’re the closest to the user—that is, the closest to the person being surveilled. Imagine yourself sitting at a computer, about to visit a website. You open a Web browser, type in a URL, and hit Enter. The URL is, in effect, a request, and this request goes out in search of its destination server. Somewhere in the midst of its travels, however, before your request gets to that server, it will have to pass ...more
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One thing you come to understand very quickly while using XKEYSCORE is that nearly everyone in the world who’s online has at least two things in common: they have all watched porn at one time or another, and they all store photos and videos of their family. This was true for virtually everyone of every gender, ethnicity, race, and age—from the meanest terrorist to the nicest senior citizen, who might be the meanest terrorist’s grandparent, or parent, or cousin.
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Even now, years after the fact, I would not be allowed to argue that the reporting based on my disclosures had caused Congress to change certain laws regarding surveillance, or convinced the courts to strike down a certain mass surveillance program as illegal, or influenced the attorney general and the president of the United States to admit that the debate over mass surveillance was a crucial one for the public to have, one that would ultimately strengthen the country.
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I was in a difficult position, and as Hemingway once wrote, the way to make people trustworthy is to trust them.
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IF MASS SURVEILLANCE was, by definition, a constant presence in daily life, then I wanted the dangers it posed, and the damage it had already done, to be a constant presence too. Through my disclosures to the press, I wanted to make this system known, its existence a fact that my country, and the world, could not ignore.In the years since 2013, awareness has grown, both in scope and subtlety. But in this social media age, we have always to remind ourselves: awareness alone is not enough. In America, the initial press reports on the disclosures started a “national conversation,” as President ...more
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We start generating this data before we are born, when technologies detect us in utero, and our data will continue to proliferate even after we die. Of course, our consciously created memories, the records that we choose to keep, comprise just a sliver of the information that has been wrung out of our lives—most of it unconsciously, or without our consent—by business and government surveillance. We are the first people in the history of the planet for whom this is true, the first people to be burdened with data immortality, the fact that our collected records might have an eternal existence. ...more
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Algorithms analyze it for patterns of established behavior in order to extrapolate behaviors to come, a type of digital prophecy that’s only slightly more accurate than analog methods like palm reading. Once you go digging into the actual technical mechanisms by which predictability is calculated, you come to understand that its science is, in fact, anti-scientific, and fatally misnamed: predictability is actually manipulation. A website that tells you that because you liked this book you might also like books by James Clapper or Michael Hayden isn’t offering an educated guess as much as a ...more