Edward Snowden told Trevor Noah recently, during a beamed-in appearance on his show, that the United States government’s announcement that he was criminally liable for breaking his nondisclosure agreement with the state’s security agencies helped push his book, PERMANENT RECORD (Macmillan), up the bestseller lists.
So the US government shot itself in the foot a bit there. Surely it didn’t want Snowden’s story to be more widely read? But it gave him that publicity spike. And, surely, breaching his nondisclosure agreement is a minor offence compared to what he did when he revealed to the world the vast surveillance and data-gathering capability he had helped the US government to construct?
For that is what Snowden did, in 2013, and today he is trapped in Moscow because any travel makes him vulnerable to being snatched by the CIA, something it has shown itself quite willing to do. Being stuck in Moscow (where he was offered at least minimal protection) is why his appearance on Noah’s show was beamed in.
The descendant of American pioneers and the child of two people in government service, Snowden put a drifting youth behind him after 9/11 when he started working for the US security agencies. In the wake of 9/11, he felt he had to get involved in the US’s self-defence. Officially employed by computer company Dell, he was seconded to the agencies to help bring them up to date in a rapidly digitising world, to develop new data and surveillance capacity in the age of the internet.
“The agencies,” he writes, “were hiring tech companies to hire tech kids, and then they were giving them the keys to the kingdom, because — as Congress and the press were told — the agencies didn’t have a choice. No one knew how the keys, or the kingdom, worked.”
After 9/11, however, and the declaration of the “war on terror”, then-president George W Bush’s Patriot Act, along with other legislation, went way beyond the matter of helping the NSA and other agencies catch up with the new tech. The Patriot Act and executive orders such as the President’s Surveillance Program (PSP) ballooned into programmes to monitor and collect every bit of data about US citizens and their communications as it could, and to store that data (and metadata) for as long as possible. The PSP made George Orwell’s Big Brother look positively amateurish.
Snowden describes his growing awareness of why such programmes were wrong, and how they violated the rights of American (and other) citizens. They were in fact illegal in US law and contravened the Constitution, which led to various legal machinations such as the Protect America Act of 2007 to “retroactively legalise the PSP”, employing “intentionally misleading language” to do so.
When Snowden stumbles upon the deeply classified report of the NSA’s inspector general, setting out precisely what was really going on, the movement towards his decision to reveal all this publicly begins. In a detailed but straightforward way, and often with some eloquence, Snowden tells the story of that journey, and what happened when, in 2013, he finally told the world what the US security agencies were up to.
The fallout was immense, and not just for Snowden himself. He remains in Moscow, ironically the unwilling guest of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is perhaps the central figure in the “information wars” of the present. Putin has driven the Russian capacity for online surveillance, hacking and data theft, and its ability to infiltrate social media all over the world and thereby to influence the outcome of elections such as the 2016 poll that brought Donald Trump to power in the US. The techniques of international power plays have changed, and Snowden and his riveting story, at the centre of that change, help us understand this dangerous new world.
Likewise Christopher Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, who tells his story in MINDF*CK: INSIDE CAMBRIDGE ANALYTICA’S PLOT TO BREAK THE WORLD (Profile Books). Cambridge Analytica was the company, funded by right-wing US plutocrats and the odd Russian oligarch, that developed the means to manipulate voters in the US and in Britain (in the run-up to the Brexit referendum). It learned to get into their heads, as it were, and how to target them as voters — and look how successful that was. And it was all thanks to the data contained in the profiles of the 87-million Facebook users that was handed over to them by the social media behemoth.
Wylie, famously a pink-haired (or, latterly, green-haired too) gay man who overcame childhood disability to become a geek running election technology in his native Canada, tells a story that in outline is similar to Snowden’s: his gradual realisation that what he was doing was profoundly wrong, was undermining the democracy and personal freedom he believed in, and his progress towards blowing the whistle on the whole thing.