Book Review: Permanent Record

“Permanent Record” by Edward SnowdenThe revolution in communication and computing technologies which has continually accelerated since the introduction of integrated circuits in the 1960s and has since given rise to the Internet, ubiquitous mobile telephony, vast data centres with formidable processing and storage capacity, and technologies such as natural language text processing, voice recognition, and image analysis, has created the potential, for the first time in human history, of mass surveillance to a degree unimagined even in dystopian fiction such as George Orwell’s 1984 or attempted by the secret police of totalitarian regimes like the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, or North Korea. But, residents of enlightened developed countries such as the United States thought, they were protected, by legal safeguards such as the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, from having their government deploy such forbidding tools against its own citizens. Certainly, there was awareness, from disclosures such as those in James Bamford’s 1982 book The Puzzle Palace, that agencies such as the National Security Agency (NSA) were employing advanced and highly secret technologies to spy upon foreign governments and their agents who might attempt to harm the United States and its citizens, but their activities were circumscribed by a legal framework which strictly limited the scope of their domestic activities.

Well, that’s what most people believed until the courageous acts by Edward Snowden, a senior technical contractor working for the NSA, revealed, in 2013, multiple programs of indiscriminate mass surveillance directed against, well, everybody in the world, U.S. citizens most definitely included. The NSA had developed and deployed a large array of hardware and software tools whose mission was essentially to capture all the communications and personal data of everybody in the world, scan it for items of interest, and store it forever where it could be accessed in future investigations. Data were collected through a multitude of means: monitoring traffic across the Internet, collecting mobile phone call and location data (estimated at five billion records per day in 2013), spidering data from Web sites, breaking vulnerable encryption technologies, working with “corporate partners” to snoop data passing through their facilities, and fusing this vast and varied data with query tools such as XKEYSCORE, which might be thought of as a Google search engine built by people who from the outset proclaimed, “Heck yes, we’re evil!”... [Read More]