Snowden on the World Machine

Image: Elyeser Szturm

Commentary on Edward Snowden's Newly Released Autobiography

By Flávio Aguiar*


in your book Eichmann in Jerusalem. An account of the banality of evil, compiled from a series of reports for the magazine The New Yorker on the trial of the war criminal, Hanna Arendt dismantles the thesis of the Israeli prosecutors, according to which he appeared as a bloodthirsty anti-Semitic monster. In its place, she unveils the image of a zealous bureaucrat, conscious of carrying out his duties well, incapable of reasoning about the orders he receives, capable only of scrupulously obeying them. In other words, Hanna Arendt seeks to demonstrate that, if well trained in the task of not asking questions about the nature of what he does, anyone has the potential to become an Eichmann.

In a way, this would be, in another context and in another century, the fate of Edward Snowden, who describes himself – in Permanent Record (London: MacMIllan, 2019) – as “a spy for the CIA and the NSA (National Security Agency of the United States), just another young technologist destined to build what he was sure would be a better world”.

The book tells the story of this “young technologist”, starting by explaining why he took on this role of practicing espionage that he thought was beneficial for his country and the world, and then explaining what led him to deviate from this route and denounce what he now considers to be the broadest and most illegal surveillance machine on the planet's citizens. This detour made him, alongside Julian Assange, one of the best known and most persecuted whistleblowers of the beginning of the XNUMXst century.

Like Assange, when embarking on this devious route, Snowden thought of taking refuge in Rafael Correa's Ecuador. Through the plots of fate and his persecutors, he escaped this fate, ending up – until now – becoming a political asylum in Vladimir Putin's Russia. Today it can be considered “lucky”, let's say, that his trip was interrupted in Moscow by the US government's decision to cancel his passport when he was traveling from Hong Kong to Russia, as the first stop on the Hong-Kong/ Quito.

If it weren't for this, today he would be in trouble under the government of Lenin Moreno, in this Latin America that is once again haunted and devastated by coups d'état and treacherous acts encouraged, supported and plotted from the United States.

How it all began

Snowden's book has the tone of an "early autobiography", the description of a journey that has not yet ended, in part because its author has potentially many years of life ahead of him, in part because it was interrupted by the withdrawal of his passport, the that condemned him to be stuck in limbo: the unexpected exile in Moscow.

The narrative begins with a kind of family genealogy of the author, highlighting the inheritance he received from his ancestors, one of whom came aboard the legendary ship Mayflower, which brought the first English settlers - puritans of religion - to found and settle in Plymouth Colony, in the current state of Massachussets, New England.

Another was a hero of the War of Independence in the 1983th century. Still others fought on both sides during the Civil War in the XNUMXth century. Finally there were those who, like young Snowden's father, served in US Coast Guard service in the Atlantic Ocean. All this situates the young man born in XNUMX, in the state of North Carolina, as the descendant of a certain North American historical “aristocracy”, with a strong inclination to combine a life of action with intellectual activities.

Born at the end of the XNUMXth century, Snowden grew up around computers: they were part of his landscape just as the telephone was already part of the landscape of many children born shortly after the end of World War II. It was with this baggage that he approached the “Intelligence Community” of the United States, gravitating around the National Security Agency and the CIA in various capacities, often outsourced, although he almost always worked in government institutions.

According to him, the decisive factor in this approach was a patriotic impulse awakened in him after the attacks of September 11, 2001. The attacks of three hijacked planes against the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington (a fourth plane that was probably headed to the White House fell according to the official version) or was shot down along the way) took all the American spy and counter-espionage services by surprise, and caused an earthquake in the organizations of the sector, including the CIA and the NSA.

From then on, there was a concentrated effort to computerize the services, and it was in this wave that Snowden voluntarily joined the system, as he himself emphasizes, because he believed that he would be putting his capabilities at the service of building a safer world.

a dizzying career

Snowden agreed to work for the CIA in 2006 after an accident in which he broke both of his legs and ruled him out of the military. Until mid-2013, when he left the “Intelligence Community” to denounce what he saw as a flagrant violation of human rights and the US Constitution, Snowden held leading positions in the United States, Europe, Japan. At the end of his engagement he was in Hawaii. He had become one of the most trained and capable agents in the entire computer and intelligence system of his country's espionage and counterintelligence.

It was in this condition that he witnessed the birth and growth of the most complete virtual surveillance system in the world, with the capacity to access any communication process on the planet or any electronic operation, as long as it is carried out on a device with Internet access, in a totally unsuspected way by part of its users. It was for this reason, which he considered an abuse of authority, that he decided to defect and become one of the whistleblowers most persecuted in the world.

The book's narrative is very tasty and has elements of suspense, although those who read it already know its outcome from the outset. Snowden describes in detail the operational beacons of this pantagruelic system of devouring and storing information. It starts with the observation of the preferential recruitment of young people like him, or even younger. Objective: to format their spirits, fascinating them with the powers they acquire, in every way. Thanks to the art of snooping into other people's lives, they can spy on everyone and everything: from Chancellor Angela Merkel's or President Dilma Rousseff's telephone to the private activities of their lovers or loved ones (it is a strongly male world, despite the exceptions).

The system often resorts to outsourcing and in this, in addition to functional reasons, there are financial reasons: whoever outsources earns a percentage, paid by the government, on the salary of the contractor in the process. This explains, for example, why Snowden, when asking one of his hires for a salary of $50 a year, received a counter offer of $60. By the early end of his career, he was earning something like 120 a year.

The scope of the system

The operations potentially cover the entire world, and there is almost nothing that can stop them. According to him, the only security that exists against this espionage is the encryption of files and messages through extremely sophisticated codes. He himself declares that he blunted his codes through the use of metacodes, which he has now destroyed. The thing that best “fools” Internet users and connections, whether current mobile telephony or not, is the small key that indicates: “delete”. In fact, this world follows an extension and gloss of Lavoisier's chemistry maxim: in it nothing is lost, everything is archived.

This is where you can see the amateurism and inconsistency of the arguments on the part of the prosecutors and judges of the Brazilian Lava Jato, claiming that they deleted their written or oral messages from their cell phones and other devices and that, therefore, the accusations of Vaza Jato cannot have their proven authenticity.

Snowden exposes that the “delete” key simply hides from the user what he thinks he is deleting, but that in fact it is archived, first, somewhere on his own device, and secondly in the clouds of the servers he contacts. Therefore, everything from Lava Jato is archived on the Telegram server or another server and is there available to anyone who wants and can (has the training to do so) to search for the information. The operator of this search does not even need to "invade" the phones or other devices that were used: it is enough, in some way, to have access to the files of the server used.

This, incidentally, is one of the reasons alleged by the NSA to justify its covert operations in court. In a case brought to the Supreme Court by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the NSA argued that when accessing a server to file or exchange messages, the user would automatically be giving up his right to privacy. For this reason, in order to exercise total and permanent surveillance, the North American spy counterespionage agencies would not need an express court order and could do so secretly. The argument was accepted by 5 Conservative votes against 4 Liberal.

For a long time the NSA's public argument focused on denying the existence of this universal and perpetual surveillance system. After Snowden's denunciations this became impossible. The US official effort today focuses on discrediting him and containing him through legal proceedings based on the “Law on Espionage”. Under pressure from the US government, the publisher of his book committed himself not to send any copyright gain to the author at least until April of next year, because, argues the NSA, with the publication Snowden violated the commitment of secrecy signed to the join the service.

Snowden counterargues: the Constitution of the United States, written in the XNUMXth century, guarantees the right to privacy of citizens before the State – except in the condition of a flagrant offense and judicial authorization to do so – which explicitly includes the documents that he has. And in the XNUMXst century, the notion of “documents” encompasses users' virtual and communication files. Mutatis mutandis, the NSA's arguments would allow for the analogous conclusion that, by depositing their money in a bank, the account holder would automatically be waiving their right to bank secrecy.

Another facet of the NSA's argument, also copied by Lava-Jato officials and others, is that information obtained through hacking or otherwise considered illegal could not be used in court.

Snowden's counterargument: North American legal tradition has established, since the XNUMXth century, that whoever discovers abuse of authority by State agents has not only the right, but the duty to denounce the illegal practice. That's why he doesn't regret what he did.

Upon leaving the presidency of the United States, in January 1961, Dwight Eisenhower denounced the existence of a “military-industrial complex” that would be the de facto power behind the governmental power in his country. The allegation was extensively studied by journalist Fred J. Cook, in the militaristic state (Brazilian Civilization, 1965).

Snowden's book shows that now, behind everything, there is a “High Tech – Espionage and Intelligence” complex, with international ramifications, although it is primarily based in the United States, which has gained almost total autonomy in relation to governments. Snowden goes so far as to argue that the main function today of diplomatic legations is to serve as a front for espionage and counter-espionage operations.

This autonomy already existed before, but what happens now is that the virtual world has enhanced its scope, power and independence. The first international support for this operating machine built in the United States is the so-called “Five Eyes Alliance”, formed by the intelligence services of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

However, the espionage network and the like extends to services in other countries, as attested, again, by the links between Operation Lava Jato and US intelligence operations. In addition, outsourcing processes have created a network that intertwines government agencies and private companies, in addition to also extending to IT research centers and think thanks and similar networks should exist from Russia and China, for example.

The impression that the book leaves us with is the one that leads us to compare the former agent Snowden to a famous illustration attributed by some to the XNUMXth or XNUMXth centuries, and by others to an art-nouveau designer from the late XNUMXth or early XNUMXth century, in which a dazzled young man goes beyond the world of appearances and manages to see, behind it all, the true “machine of the world”. Only young Snowden, who was dazzled before, found himself, in the passage, terrified.

The state of the art

After his secret “escape” from Hawaii, where he was working at the time, to Hong Kong (neither his family nor his girlfriend found out), where he gave interviews to Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Ewen MacAskill, Snowden literally managed to “evade se” from harassment by other journalists and potentially by local authorities thanks to a solidarity network that even involved refugees from other countries, inhabitants of peripheral neighborhoods and the city’s poor.

He obtained a safe conduct from the Ecuadorian consul in London, thanks to the collaboration of Julian Assange and another Wiki Leaks journalist (Sarah Harrison), which allowed him to leave Hong Kong and reach Moscow. Today he leads a discreet life, in the company of his girlfriend Lindsay. He avoids public appearances, and says he often wears a scarf and hat to hide his face. To grant interviews, she arranges meetings in hotels.

It is definitely the price he pays for his courage and audacity, with which he honored the principles of his conscience. By way of conclusion of this review, we can say that one of the serious problems we face daily is that we are, in terms of public administration, private and information services in the media or beyond, surrounded by hordes of Eichmanns, where the Snowdens remain the brave and honorable exceptions being.

*Flavio Aguiar, writer and journalist, is a retired professor of Brazilian literature at USP.

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