After 6 Years in Exile, Edward Snowden Explains Himself

Edward Snowden, arguably the world’s most famous whistle-blower, is a man who lived behind plenty of pseudonyms before putting his true name to his truth-telling: When he was first communicating with the journalists who would reveal his top-secret NSA leaks, he used the names Citizenfour, Cincinnatus, and Verax—Latin for “truthful” and a knowing allusion to Julian Assange’s old hacker handle Mendax, the teller of lies.

But in his newly published memoir and manifesto, Permanent Record, Snowden describes other handles, albeit long-defunct ones: Shrike the Knight, Corwin the Bard, Belgarion the Smith, squ33ker the precocious kid asking amateur questions about chip compatibility on an early bulletin-board service. These were online videogame and forum personas, he writes, that as a teenager in the 1990s he’d acquire and jettison like T-shirts, assuming new identities on a whim, often to leave behind mistakes or embarrassing ideas he’d tried out in online conversations. Sometimes, he notes, he’d even use his new identity to attack his prior self, the better to disavow the ignoramus he’d been the week before.

That long-lost internet, Snowden writes, offered its inhabitants a “reset button for your life” that could be pressed every day, at will. And he still pines for it. “To be able to expand your experience, to become a more whole person by being able to try and fail, this is what teaches us who we are and who we want to become,” Snowden told WIRED in an interview ahead of his book’s publication tomorrow. “This is what’s denied to the rising generation. They’re so ruthlessly and strictly identified in every network they interact with and by which they live. They’re denied the opportunities we had to be forgotten and to have their mistakes forgiven.”

No one has exposed more than Snowden how that individualistic, ephemeral, anonymous internet has ceased to exist. Perhaps it was always a myth. (After all, at least one trove of Snowden’s chatroom musings on everything from guns to sex advice, under the pseudonym TheTrueHooha, remained online after his rise to notoriety.)

But for the former NSA contractor and many of his generation, that idea of the internet is a foundational myth, enshrined in Neal Stephenson novels and in “The Hacker Manifesto”—both of which Snowden describes reading as a teenager in a mononucleosis haze—and John Perry Barlow’s “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” which Snowden writes that he holds in his memory next to the preamble to the Constitution. The internet of the ’90s, which Snowden describes as “the most pleasant and successful anarchy I’ve ever seen,” was his community and his education. He even met his future wife on Hotornot.com.

Snowden says documenting that prehistoric digital world and its disappearance was part of what drove him to write Permanent Record, overcoming his own aversion to sharing details of his personal life. And in doing so, he may have also helped the world understand him better than ever before. “This is actually more than a memoir from my perspective,” he says. “The way I got through it was by telling, yes the history of myself as a person, but also the history of a time and a change—in technology, in a system, in the internet, and in American democracy.”

The IT Guy Ascendant

The resulting autobiography is split roughly into thirds: Snowden’s life before joining the world of spies, his whirlwind seven years in the intelligence community, and his experience as a whistle-blower and international fugitive. Against all odds, the first of these, a full hundred pages largely describing the very least unique part of Snowden’s life—a hyper-intelligent but relatively unremarkable high school dropout—is not at all a waste of time.

Instead, this portrait of the whistle-blower as a young man provides perhaps the most understandable, human explanation yet for Snowden’s ultimate decision to turn his back on his NSA colleagues, spill the agency’s guts, and condemn himself to exile: It’s the story of an ambitious geek smart enough to shoot up through the NSA’s ranks while keeping intact ideals for the internet that were entirely opposed to those of his employer.

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In Snowden’s telling, it sounds for the first time less like a biography of a Black Swan than the experience of a generation: An extremely online kid of the ’90s who is only drawn to government service after the shattering experience of 9/11. After an attempt to join the special forces—he crashes out after breaking both legs in basic training—he gravitates to the intelligence world, where he discovers that the agency he works for has transformed the internet into the opposite of the playground he idealized. Instead, it’s a fundamental threat to that unobserved, unrecorded anarchy, a threat that someone will need to make an enormous sacrifice to stop.

Other than the fateful decision to actually become that someone, Snowden points out that the rest of his story could have belonged to practically any of thousands of geeks with similar experiences. “I am ordinary. The thing I discovered in my own analysis of my past is how undistinguished I was,” Snowden says. “If it hadn’t been me, it would have been someone else. The Edward Snowden moment was inevitable, because you can only roll the dice on conscience for so long until somebody objects.”

That decision has arguably led to real changes: The passage of the USA Freedom Act in 2015 significantly limited the collection of phone records that had previously swept up the metadata of every American, perhaps the clearest illustration among Snowden’s revelations of the mass surveillance he sought to expose. Congress is now considering whether to end the metadata collection program altogether. But none of that has changed the deep bipartisan resentment of Snowden within the higher ranks of the US government: Democratic representative Adam Schiff has disputed that Snowden can even be called a whistle-blower, while President Trump’s secretary of state Michael Pompeo has called for Snowden’s execution.

“We’ve been forced to live naked before power for a generation.”

Edward Snowden

While the larger world has debated Snowden’s role as a hero or a traitor over the six years since he became a household name, many in the cybersecurity community have instead dismissed him as a mere grandstanding IT guy—a systems administrator who never really participated in the surveillance and hacking operations he’d later expose. As it turns out, this is half true. Snowden was, even at the zenith of his ascendant career, the IT guy, responsible for managing what he calls a “dopey poky” Microsoft system for document sharing called SharePoint but also building systems known as EpicShelter and Heartbeat that de-duplicated and shared information more efficiently between NSA offices. Aside from one early incident as a teenager in which he describes finding and reporting a relatively simple vulnerability in a nuclear facility’s website, there’s not much evidence of Snowden’s prowess as a hacker.

It turns out, however, that the IT guy, in an institution whose currency is information, is one of the most powerful people in the org chart. Snowden was, in fact, one of the young IT elite, deeply aware of the generational divide that helped put him in that role. In one passage from a period he spent working at a CIA data center, he describes, with conscious immodesty, his daily walk past an array of IT help desk staffers on his way into a more highly classified compartment of secrets inside the building. “I was decades younger than the help desk folks and heading past them into a vault to which they didn’t have access and never would,” he writes.

Later, he describes his final position in the NSA’s Hawaii office, based in a massive Cold War–era tunnel under a pineapple field. “I was the only employee of the Office of Information Sharing—I was the Office of Information Sharing. So my very job was to know what sharable information was out there.”

In his review of that résumé with WIRED, he laughed off the “just a systems administrator” attacks. “There’s no such thing as just a systems administrator,” Snowden says. “The systems administrator is always the most powerful person on the entire network.”

The System Is the Abuse

At one point early in his NSA career, Snowden writes that he was asked to use his deep access to assemble a counterintelligence presentation on Chinese surveillance and internet control—one of the first moments when he began to wonder how exactly the equivalent US systems of internet surveillance might compare. But for the most part, his core role as an IT shaman and data distribution expert seems to have left him removed enough from the day-to-day surveillance mission to maintain the principled stand of an outside observer—maximum access to information about the NSA’s surveillance with a minimum of the complicity that keeps others silent.

More than in other descriptions of his revelations, Permanent Record makes clearer than ever that Snowden’s central concern, and what drove him to his life-altering decision to digitally disembowel his employer, is not any specific surveillance abuse. (Though he does note plenty of instances of “LoveInt” in the agency, in which staff spied on romantic interests and ex-partners.)

Instead, he writes that it’s the building of a potential panopticon—what he has called turnkey tyranny—with every tool in place to record everything about everyone, to turn any individual’s secret life against them at the whim of the powerful, that he sought to expose and devote his life to fighting. “The construction of the system was itself the abuse,” he says. “We’ve been forced to live naked before power for a generation.”

Specific examples of human rights abuses, like the growing use of surveillance tools by agencies like Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to enforce the Trump administration’s cruel vision of immigration policy, he argues, are just a symptom of that larger systemic change. “Donald Trump isn’t the problem. He’s the product of the problem,” Snowden says.

Snowden’s nostalgia for a less-policed, anonymous, and anarchic internet, of course, doesn’t seem to account for the troll armies and alt-right “free speech” brigades widely seen as the real online force behind Trump’s rise. But on that point, Snowden remains a kind of First Amendment absolutist. “That’s the price of admission to a free society,” he says. “The best response to the worst person is not to fear them but to correct them, not to silence them but to challenge them, to make them better than they were.”

Exiled Body, Online Brain

Aside from Snowden’s origin story and motives, the last act of Permanent Record documents in more detail than ever before the process of Snowden’s leaks, from “wardriving” around Hawaii with his laptop to break into vulnerable Wi-Fi networks as a means to cover his digital tracks to his escape across the globe from Hawaii to Hong Kong to Moscow, including fresh details about the underreported role of WikiLeaks’ Sarah Harrison as his protector and guide. That story climaxes in a tense meeting between Snowden and an officer of the FSB in the Moscow airport. The official does his best, briefly, to turn Snowden into a Russian intelligence asset. Snowden writes that he interrupted to decline before the pitch was even finished, the better to avoid any unscrupulous editing of hidden recordings of the meeting.

Snowden flatly denies that he has had any other interactions with Russian intelligence since. After all, he never brought a single NSA document to Russia. “All I have is what’s in my head, and I wasn’t willing to give that to them,” he says. He speculates that the Kremlin is satisfied enough with his involuntary role as a living embarrassment to the United States, an American human rights defender forced to seek asylum in Putin’s Russia rather than the other way around.

As for his endgame, Snowden says he has none—that he hasn’t, in fact, had much of a plan for his long-term survival since he left Hawaii. He has said repeatedly that he’s ready to return to the US to stand trial if he’s allowed to mount a defense based on the motivations for his whistle-blowing—which means he isn’t ready to return to the US anytime soon: Snowden faces charges under the Espionage Act, which treats leaks of classified information to a journalist as no different from selling secrets to a foreign government. Trump’s friendliness with Putin, meanwhile, has raised questions about whether he might at some point be handed back to the US as a diplomatic gift, a possibility that Snowden says he puts out of his mind as an uncontrollable element of his fate.

If he has to spend the rest of his life in Russia, on the other hand, so be it, he says. He rents an apartment with his wife, Lindsay, whom he married in Moscow. He can find most of the same American fast food in Moscow that he loved in Hawaii and Maryland. He continues to act as president of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, beaming into his colleagues’ computer screens like Max Headroom—and occasionally into a mobile telepresence robot—to lead a team of programmers and engineers focused on building tools designed to improving journalists’ digital security.

Regardless of where he might live, above all else he remains a creature of the online world, an “indoor cat,” as he calls himself. “My life has always been mediated by a screen. What difference does it make whether I’m looking at a screen in New York or Berlin or Moscow?” Snowden says. “It’s all the same internet.”

All Rights Reserved for Andy Greenberg

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