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Blowing the Whistle: Putting the Public Good Before Personal Safety

This week, we share with you the memoirs of Edward Snowden, released simultaneously throughout the world in mid-September. It is a book that makes for fascinating reading. Its succinct narrative recounts the life of Snowden, the brilliant and intellectual computer expert who was first trained by the CIA and employed as a "global systems administrator" (a hacker, according to Snowden), then eventually went to work for the NSA on a subcontractor basis. In 2013, Snowden decided to publicly reveal the existence of a mass surveillance system that the U.S. intelligence community had created after September 11 in order to spy on American citizens with total impunity.

Edward Snowden is now 36 years old, he lives in exile in Moscow, where he changed planes in 2013 on his way to Ecuador, a country he never reached. It is hard to envisage Russia as the country that would welcome him after America had demanded his extradition, however six years have gone by and he is still living in the Russian capitol. He married the American woman he met when he was 22, and works at a distance with the Freedom Press Foundation, a nonprofit organization which supports freedom of the press.

The book is presented as an autobiography: the narrative begins with the evocation of Snowden's youth and his family line, rather emblematic of a certain element of American society attached to public service and gravitating around national defense and intelligence. However, it is also an exposé, largely technical, of the surveillance apparatus uncovered by Snowden. His dedication to solid developments in computer experience, his hacking activity during a precocious adolescence, then the rigorous uncovering of the positions that he held successively with the CIA, Dell and then as subcontractor for the NSA, are there to give us a concrete understanding of the surveillance system the U.S. put into place and its programmatic dimension, in parallel with the consequent judicial arsenal that contraverts civil liberties and several amendments to the American Constitution.

We find here the personal account that we seek from this young man, who progressively realizes that he is actively violating the privacy oath that he made to his employers, in an irreversible move away from the intelligence community at the heart of the American state. With great precision, Snowden describes the lack of moral cohesion when the politics of the War on Terror take off after September 11, 2001, becoming more potent than terrorism itself: the most powerful State agencies find themselves clinically organizing surveillance of a priori innocent citizens, simply because it is technically possible to do so. Today these issues are better grasped, and so we can measure the considerable contribution that Snowden's revelations have represented these last six years.

This book is still relevant today because of the current gap between technological pragmatism and the law's capacity to assimilate it and create a model, as indicated by the author at the end of the work with regard to supposedly predictable technologies that to him are nothing less than manipulation.

If it only takes one good reason to dive into this book, certainly it is to understand, through a lively and even gripping account, the intellectual and humane movement of this brilliant and idealistic man who has put truth, the public good and the democratic values to which he is committed ahead of his own happiness and security. As he has written himself, each one of his past life experiences in some way predestined him to become a whistle blower on an international scale.

Snowden thus deploys with consistency his tastes for solitude, for the culture of secrecy and cover-ups as seen in his successive professional choices, his nostalgia of Internet at its beginning, when it was a space for liberty, anonymity and goodwill. Permanent Record is at once an account of incredible risk-taking and the demonstration of a life structured with flawless rigor and moral integrity.

Edward Snowden, Permanent Record, Macmillan, 2019.

Translated from French to English by Sally Gordon-Mark.

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