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With the people as the client

Permanent Record (System Error)
Forfatter: Edward Snowden
Forlag: Macmillan (USA)
SNOWDEN / A spy, traitor or patriot? The answer depends on who you ask.


Imagine that someone has access to a search engine where all of your personal data about you and yours is as accessible as when you use Google: phone calls, private photos, intimate videos, embarrassing emails, small and big secrets you want for yourself . XKEYSCORE it's called the "search engine" and the US National Security Agency (NSA) uses it to snoop on our private affairs. All it takes is a unique identification: such as your private email address. NSA has also shared the technology with other countries' intelligence agencies, including Australia, Japan and Germany. That we know at all that such data collection is possible, we can thank the announcer Edward Snowden.

The United States sued Snowden

Same day as Permanent Record came to the bookstore, US authorities went to court, Snowden has said on Twitter. "The publication violates the confidentiality agreement" – which means that the authorities must read and approve such books. This lawsuit is also intended to prevent Snowden from making money in the book sale: "We do not want individuals to enrich themselves at the expense of the United States without complying with their publishing obligations," a statement from the US Department of Justice said.

Permanent Record (System Error called the book in Norway) opens with "I used to work for the government, now I work for the public". But it takes time to get to what Snowden means by this; there is a lot of technical information we need to go through first.

All traffic is via the United States

According to the book, 90 percent of all internet traffic goes through US servers or uses US-developed technology. In the wake of 9 / 11, the United States developed new methods and has also increased the scope of surveillance. Snowden, proud to have received a high security clearance as an 22 year-old, was instrumental in developing parts of the technology. Later he accidentally discovered how extensive the surveillance is in top secret documents. From that technology has been used to defend United States, it is used to spy on the nation's residents – including private communications and metadata collection. And the tools are getting more and more advanced.

As an employee of external supplier Booz Allen Hamilton, Snowden gained access to everything at NSA. One example from the book is PRISM, which lets NSA collect and store user data from giant companies such as Microsoft, Google, Facebook, YouTube and Apple – including emails, video calls, photos and audio recordings stored in cloud services. The scope is insane. But the head of national intelligence, James Clapper, nevertheless testified before a Senate committee in 2013 and denied that the NSA had collected data on US citizens.

Vincent Silvestro

Eventually, Snowden became concerned that people were unaware that they were being monitored. In the book he emphasizes that this is a violation of the Constitution. He was plagued by poor conscience and stress, and developed epilepsy.

However, his colleagues did not share his concerns about the snooping they were doing, and he was alone with his torment of conscience – nor could he talk to his partner about them. Snowden concluded that the monitoring practice had to be made public. He writes that he does not see alert as a radical act, but an opportunity to "repair a broken system." Snowden wanted to reveal that the authorities had developed and implemented a global mass surveillance system, without the citizens being informed or approved. He was willing to risk everything to get the information out to the people, whom he perceived as his real client.

Journalists with weak routines

Snowden writes in great detail about how, without being discovered, he gathered evidence that he smuggled out on SD memory chips that took many hours to fill up. Meanwhile, he considered which journalists and media – too WikiLeaks – that could help him. Snowden didn't want to dump everything into the public space, which would have happened if he were using WikiLeaks. Rather, he wanted to use journalists who could help him publish the information piecemeal – not least to avoid focusing all his attention on him at first.

When he got in touch with the journalists, however, he struggled with the journalists' inadequate encryption and security routines. What happened then is well-known material from, among others, director Laura Poitras' documentary Citizenfour (2014): In a Hong Kong hotel room, Snowden released NSA material with evidence of espionage to journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewan MacAskill (The Guardian).

Abandoned without warning

It's a shame that the book's editor didn't ask Snowden to leave out some of the data and encryption details and leave more room for more personal reflections. It is rather thoughts about the internet, privacy anonymity and not least technical solutions that characterize the last half of the book.

The United States spies on the nation's citizens – including private communications and metadata collection.

Towards the end, however, some excerpts from his girlfriend's diary appear – a refreshing breath. She was left – without warning – with a note on the kitchen table that Snowden was on a job break. She was the one who got it FBI on the door, the one who had to repeat repeated interrogations (without knowing anything) and was followed by the FBI around the clock while Snowden was hiding abroad. Today he lives under temporary asylum in Russia with his girlfriend. They married two years ago, the book concludes.


As a reader, one might wonder why collecting personal information is so dangerous: What can this information be used for? Snowden seems more concerned about monitoring being wrong than speculating on any consequences. But the fact that all our data can last forever gives us a special responsibility to make sure that the data cannot be used against us in the future, or used against our descendants, he writes. Snowden points to the problem, but leaves us to do something about it.

It may not be so bad that someone finds out what you ate for dinner, but who you associate with, your political or sexual orientering Would you perhaps prefer to keep to yourself? Everything you do that deviates from society's existing norms may be used against you later in life. As we now know, China uses its social points system – with sanctions such as that you can be refused to buy a train ticket.

Aschehoug published the book in Norwegian in September with the title System Error, translated by Lene Stokseth.

VG: The United States is suing Snowden

Iril Kolle
Iril Kolle
Freelance journalist, translator and graphic designer.

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