Book Review: Permanent Record by Edward Snowden
Updated: Oct 8, 2020
Target audience: adult and possibly woke teenagers
You should read this if: you love magnificent prose and important life lessons
Favourite quote: “It wasn’t that my classmates didn’t care enough to fight, it was that they couldn’t afford to: the system was designed so that the perceived cost of escalation exceeded the expected benefit of a resolution.”
If you've talked to me at all in the past few weeks, chances are that you've probably noticed that I’ve been raving about Permanent Record everywhere online. Before I even finished Edward Snowden's book (published by Macmillan around this time last year), I already knew for sure that this would be one of my favourite reads of 2020. It is frankly a very rare occurrence that a book leaves me speechless but when I closed this one up, I had so many thoughts that I truly didn’t know where to start.
First things first, I must say that this is probably the best written piece of nonfiction that I have read since Educated. At times, it is sad, at times it is laugh out loud funny, but it will make you feel all the emotions in between. The prose in Permanent Record is incredibly vivid and I honestly could not put it down. I am not sure whether someone secretly ghost wrote this book or if Snowden wrote it himself (although judging by the emails that he sent Laura Poitras which are read out in CitizenFour, I would guess the latter - the style is strikingly similar) but oh, boy was the writing impeccable. Even if you’re not particularly interested in the subject-topic, I would highly recommend reading this, simply on the face of pure literary quality.
Regarding the book itself, I must warn you that if you’re looking for a detailed analysis of the Snowden revelations and their impact on the world, Permanent Record is not it. While Snowden does go into some detail about the CIA/NSA programmes that he worked on over the years (and is quite good at explaining them - better than some of the reporting that was done at the time, to be honest), this book isn’t so much about the scandal itself as it is about his life and his personal experiences both working for the NSA and becoming a whistleblower. It paints a picture of his upbringing, his decision to work for the American government due - in part - to 9/11 and his later commitment to privacy. This book is - I think - a very successful attempt at answering the question: how do you become Edward Snowden?
Interestingly, some of my favourite anecdotes of Permanent Record regarded Snowden’s upbringing and early days. He describes: his family’s history of working for the NSA and the normalcy that that life had for him, his early love for computers and the beauty of the early days of the internet. I strangely identified with a lot of his experiences here. Although I was never quite a computer geek myself, I recognised the video games and the forums, and the opening up of the world when it all got online for the first time, before the internet got overtaken by money and brands, and marketing tools. As a millennial myself, the early chapters of the book made me feel an odd mix of amusement and nostalgia, which I honestly didn’t expect when buying this.
Later on, Snowden writes about his short-stint with the army (“The army makes its fighters by first training the fight out of them until they’re too weak to care, or to do anything besides obey”) and, of course, his rise within the NSA, before the revelations he made in 2013. I think that what is most interesting about this story is how meticulously planned and premeditated his decision to go public was. This is not a guy who just saw some documents he shouldn’t have seen, ran out of the building with them and sent them on to journalists. The research carried out on the NSA surveillance programmes took him actual years in the making, building tools and exporting documents for months until he hit the point of no return. It was a hard-thought, premeditated and organised plan to come forward, which I think is probably the reason why it had so much impact.
As someone who, personally, has always been fascinated by group dynamics and the reasons why certain people in this world are brave enough to step up, I found this fascinating. One must wonder: why did Edward Snowden come forward when hundreds of NSA analysts with similar access to the programmes didn’t? Why was he the one to do it? Permanent Record explains that with a tale of love and courage, right and wrong, and a sense of purpose in something bigger than ourselves. It does not seek to convince or persuade you of anything, nor does it seek forgiveness. Whichever way you are leaning on this debate, it is also unlikely to change your mind on the matter. What I loved about this book is that it simply exists to be on the record, to show how and why doing the right thing, sometimes, matters.
As a last note, I particularly enjoyed the chapter towards the end which bears the excerpts of his girlfriend's diaries. I think it was important for him not to shy away from the very real consequences that his actions had on the lives of the people he loved.