WASHINGTON – American whistleblower Edward Snowden has published his memoirs in a book that urges people to seize their data in the Internet age.
Snowden went from being a teenager hooked on Nintendo to hiding intelligence secrets in the slits of a Rubik’s cube, and Permanent Record offers a self-portrait of the former United States National Security Agency (NSA) technician which goes on sale Tuesday in 23 countries, including the US.
“My name is Edward Joseph Snowden.
“I used to work for the government, but now I work for the people.”
Six years after revealing the NSA’s telephone and internet mass surveillance programs, Snowden remains a hero for some and a traitor for others, and his memories will hardly convince anyone to change sides.
But, for an American who has lived in exile in Moscow since 2013 protected by a temporary asylum to avoid what he says would not be a fair trial in the US, telling his story is a way of defending himself from his critics and balancing the impact of his revelations.
Part of Snowden’s book reads as a love letter to the dawn of the Internet, a medium that fascinated him but that, he says, ended up being corrupted by what he defines as surveillance capitalism: the attempts of the Government and companies to monetize human connections.
That drift eroded what Snowden considers a fundamental human right – privacy.
Snowden is of the opinion that privacy remains as under threat to this day as it did when he disclosed the secrets of the NSA.
His fascination with all things digital began when he was eight years old and his parents installed the first family computer in the dining room.
In his book, he recalled how he and the computer were inseparable and that, before he knew it, the concept of going outside to kick a ball seemed ridiculous.
“Internet access, and the emergence of the Web, was my generation’s big bang.
“The Internet was my sanctuary; the Web became my jungle gym, my treehouse, my fortress, my classroom without walls,” Snowden said in his memoir.
Nintendo video games and other consoles reinforced his passion for screens and sharpened a mind so attune to technology that it would eventually draw the attention of US intelligence agencies even though Snowden never earned a university degree.
But it was an analog game, a 20th century puzzle that eventually became Snowden’s talisman and ally in his mission to smuggle 1.7 million NSA files out of the country: an unassuming Rubik’s cube.
It was during his time as an NSA contractor in Hawaii that Snowden decided that what his Government was doing violated the rights of Americans.
And it was between the slits of the cuboid puzzle that he hid SD cards, normally used in cameras, where he stored some of the most precious secrets of American intelligence.
“A Rubik’s cube can be very useful and functions as a distraction device and also functions as a concealment device,” the American mused.
The Rubik’s cube was also instrumental for trusted journalists to identify him, as happened in the lobby of a Hong Kong hotel.
Several weeks later he resisted the temptation to fiddle with the puzzle to calm his nerves on a flight that took him to what I thought would be just a stopover in Russia to Ecuador.
In June 2013 The Guardian newspaper and Washington Post published leaked documents that showed the NSA was collecting data of millions of Americans.
Snowden’s US passport was revoked and in July 2013 Russia proceeded to process the whistleblower’s asylum request.
Snowden was denied asylum by 27 countries, including France, Germany and Norway, the 36 year old said in an interview with the MSNBC network on occasion of the launch of his book Tuesday.
From what he considers a forced exile in Russia, Snowden witnessed a series of changes in US surveillance programs, but still considers them insufficient given the growing power of tech giants dominated by the US companies (Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple known as GAFA).
Although Snowden is hopeful for the generation born after 2000, his diagnosis of the future is pessimistic and his warnings urgent.
“The greatest danger still lies ahead, with the refinement of artificial intelligence capabilities, such as facial and pattern recognition,” he warned.
“You have to be ready to stand for something if you want it to change.”