Book notes: Permanent Record by Edward Snowden

Permanent Record by Edward Snowden book summary review and key ideas.

Permanent Record by Edward Snowden


“In 2013, 29-year-old Edward Snowden shocked the world when he broke with the American intelligence establishment and revealed that the United States government was secretly pursuing the means to collect every single phone call, text message, and email. The result would be an unprecedented system of mass surveillance with the ability to pry into the private lives of every person on earth. Six years later, Snowden reveals for the very first time how he helped to build this system and why he was moved to expose it. 

Spanning the bucolic Beltway suburbs of his childhood and the clandestine CIA and NSA postings of his adulthood, Permanent Record is the extraordinary account of a bright young man who grew up online – a man who became a spy, a whistleblower, and, in exile, the internet’s conscience. Written with wit, grace, passion, and an unflinching candor, Permanent Record is a crucial memoir of our digital age and destined to be a classic.” -Audible

Opening thoughts:

I don’t think anyone recommended this to me. If I’m not mistaken, I think I found it through Audible under recommended reads. I picked this one up for the month because I’ve been watching the Netflix series Designated Survivor and it’s all about politics and government. Going along with that theme, it seemed relevant and interesting to me right now.

Key notes:

  • A life is what we love and what we believe in
    • What he loves is connection and the technologies by which that is achieved
  • The freedom of a country can only be measured by its respect for the rights of its citizens

Part One

Chapter 1: Looking Through the Window

Chapter 2: The Invisible Wall

  • Trend of people not caring and knowing how to technology works leads to technological tyranny
    • You become a possession of your possessions

Chapter 3: Beltway Boy

Chapter 5: hacking

  • He believes hacking is the sanest, healthiest, most educational way he knows for kids to assert autonomy and address adults on equal terms
  • To hack a system requires getting to know the rules better than the people who created it or are running it
    • And exploiting all the vulnerable distance between how those people intended it to work and how it actually works, or could be made to work
    • In capitalizing on these unintentional uses, hackers aren’t breaking the rules as much as debunking them

Chapter 6: incomplete

  • If people underestimate you, let them
    • You should always let people underestimate you because when they misappraise your intelligence and abilities, they are merely pointing out their own vulnerabilities
  • A friend once told him you aren’t really an adult until you marry a parent or become one
    • What they don’t tell you is that for kids of a certain age, divorce is like both of those happening at once
    • Suddenly, the invulnerable icons of your childhood are gone and in their place is a person even more lost than you are, full of tears and rage, who craves your reassurance that everything will turn out OK
      • It won’t though. At least not for a while
  • The unexpected blessing of trauma, the opportunity for reinvention, taught him to appreciate the world beyond the four walls of home
    • He was surprised to find that the more distant put between him and his parents, he became closer to others who treated him like a peer and two mentors who taught him various skills in life
  • One of the most difficult trials that a child of divorce has to face is being interrogated by one parent about the new life of the other
  • In some instances during divorce, the roles are reversed and the child has to become the parent and keep them in line

Reader’s note: It’s crazy because I’ve never heard anyone speak about this, about the perspective of a child in the middle of their parents’ divorce. This one hit home because I can relate growing up going back and forth between my mom and dad. I felt like my mom becoming a single parent definitely altered my childhood as I certainly developed into a more independent person out of necessity. I was always the responsible kid and the “man of the house” so to speak. My mom had a few relationships here and there, and eventually got remarried, but the back and forth dynamic, and dealing with parents who we now “fallible” and going through their own journeys definitely had it’s affect on my sister and I. I can’t speak for my sister necessarily, but it makes sense why I am the way I am now as an adult.

Chapter 7: 9/11

  • The best way to appear normal is to surround yourself with people as weird as you are or even weirder
  • He started to gain familiarity with anime such as Trigun, Ruroni Kenshin, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Nausicaa, and his favorite Ghost in the Shell

Chapter 8: 9/12

Chapter 9: X-Rays

Chapter 10: Cleared and In Love

  • Being in the army gave him confidence and he also realized he needed to serve his country through his head and hands and utilize his knowledge with computers
  • There are three levels of security clearance:
    • Confidential
    • Secret
    • Top-Secret
      • There’s an Extended Top-Secret for sensitive compartmentalized information
  • He didn’t want to erase all of his old posts on the Internet that he didn’t agree with anymore because he didn’t want to live in a world where everyone had to pretend they were perfect
    • Didn’t want to erase who he was and how far he had come
    • He didn’t want to deny his former self as it would deny his current self’s validity
  • We cannot erase the things that shame us or the ways we’ve shamed ourselves online
    • All we can do is control our reaction by letting our past press us or accept it’s lessons, grow, and move on
  • He got his top security clearance and passed the full scope polygraph which is the highest clearance in the country
    • He also started dating the love of his life all at 22 years old

Part Two

Chapter 11: The System

  • In the early 2000’s, the Internet offered a more complete and authentic incarnation of American ideals than even America itself 
  • He eventually worked as a system admin and system engineer and started to think about systems as a whole
  • He ended his time in the intelligence community convinced that the country’s operating system, it’s government, decided that it functions best when it was broken

Chapter 12: Homo Contractus

  • Contracting functions as governmentally assisted corruption
    • It is Americas most convenient and legal method of transferring public money to the private person
    • This is when an intelligence director asks Congress for more money to spend on contractors
      • Later on in their career, these Directors and Congress people get rewarded when they retire with consulting jobs at those contracting companies they hired 
  • He thought it was crazy how it’s so hard to service country directly and it was easier to serve indirectly via a contracting or subcontracting company
    • The government thought it would be innovative to give the keys of the kingdom to a technology company run by kids, but mostly because they didn’t know how the keys of the kingdom work so they had no choice
  • After 2013, the government tried to discredit him as a job hopping, disgruntled contractor without full clearance access
    • The truth was the IC knew that this was the nature of contracting intelligence work and that those agencies created and profited off this model
    • In intelligence and tech contracting, you find yourself physically working at the agency, but on paper you work at Dell or Lockheed Martin

Chapter 13: Indoc

  • The arrogance of people knowing they are uniquely qualified to make decisions on behalf of others represented the great nexus of the intelligence community and the tech industry
    • Both are entrenched and unelected powers that pride themselves on maintaining absolute secrecy about their developments
    • Both believe that they have the solutions for everything which they never hesitate to unilaterally impose
    • Above all, they both believe that their actions are inherently apolitical as they’re based on data

Chapter 14: The Count of the Hill

  • The worst kept secret of modern diplomacy is that the primary function of an embassy nowadays is to serve as a platform for espionage
  • Even though he was one of the sharpest and most patriotic guys in his class, the directors of the program told him that he needed to respect the chain of command and not be insubordinate or else they can’t trust him in the field
    • Therefore he got an assignment in a location that he didn’t want as a punishment
  • Frankenstein seems to be a cautionary account of how technical logical innovations tends to out pace moral, legal, and ethical restrains
    • The result is the creation of and uncontrollable monster
    • In the intelligence community, the Frankenstein effect is widely cited, though more popular military term is blowback
      • Situations in which policy decisions intended to advanced American interests end up harming them irreparably
  • TOR (the onion routing) network utilized a layering method that disguised where an online request came from and where it’s going, therefore was a more effective way to connect to the Internet anonymously

Chapter 15: Tokyo

  • When it comes to the technological landscape, it is fundamentally American and America has the home-field advantage
    • Not only do they host the infrastructure, they also produce the hardware and networking software, and services of the digital world
  • Two things stunned him about the NSA:
    1. How technologically sophisticated they were compared to the CIA
    2. How much less vigilant it was about security in every iteration
  • The fundamental rule of technological progress: if something can be done, it probably will be or possibly already has been done
    • There was no way America had all this information of what China has done and not have done it themselves to some extent
    • Edward had a sneaking suspicion that while he was doing research on China, he was looking at a mirror and seeing a reflection of America
  • The program the NSA was using justified by its changing mission for a changing technological landscape was called Stellar Wind
    • They mark the shift from targeted surveillance to mass surveillance on a global scale
    • It signaled the shift of its mission from using technology to defend America to using technology to control it by redefining citizens private internet communications as potential signals intelligence
  • Technology doesn’t have a Hippocratic Oath
    • So many decisions that have been made by technologists, academia, industry, military and gov have been made on the basis of “can we” instead of “should we?”
    • The intention driving a technology’s invention rarely if ever limits its application and use

Chapter 17: Home on the Cloud

  • Ultimately the privacy of our data depends on the ownership of our data
    • There’s no property less protected and yet no property more private

Chapter 18: On the Couch

  • Saying you don’t care about freedom of privacy because you have nothing to hide is like saying you don’t care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say
    • Giving up your freedom means giving up everyone else’s

Part Three

Chapter 19: The Tunnel

Chapter 20: Heartbeat

  • He created a system called Heartbeat that was a read board of read words and aggregated relevant information to people from all of the IC community sources at a slow and constant pace
  • The better you can understand a programs mechanics, The better you can understand its potential for abuse

Chapter 21: Whistleblowing

Chapter 23: Read, Write, Execute

  • He decided to become a whistleblower and had to figure out how to do it the right way, from what information to disclose, who to disclose it to, how to disclose it to them, etc
  • His entire work experience that led him to this point prepared him to do what he needed, to discreetly copy and de duplicate and compress and take files out of the facility
    • He even used his Rubik’s cube and got to know the guards and handed them out so that it became his totem everyone was familiar with

Chapter 24: Encrypt

  • When you delete files, you’re actually just erasing the map of where it’s stored, called the file table
    • It’s just deleting the reference to it
    • This is why copying takes long while deletion is instantaneous
    • Deletion doesn’t do much to a file besides conceal it
      • Computers weren’t designed to correct mistakes but to hide them
  • Encryption protects your data and is only readable with the encryption key
    • This is the solution to the delete issue/dilemma
    • Encryption is the single best hope of fighting surveillance for any kind
  • Best means for keeping keys safe is called zero knowledge
    • It’s a method that ensures any data you store externally is encrypted by an algorithm running on your device before it is uploaded, and the key is never shared
      • The keys are in the users hands only
  • He took extra precaution to make sure all of the NSA’s secrets were safe, and that if he needed to and destroyed the one part of the key he kept on him, their secrets would never be revealed 

Chapter 25: the boy

  • X-Keyscore was a blatant example of the technology being abused by their government where you can pretty much see everything a person does via their phone or computer, or basically any data they produce
  • The analysts coined the term “LoveInt” a joke on HumInt and SigInt in which they use the programs to surveil current and former lovers, or even casual interests
  • Nobody was ever prosecuted for abusing the system because then they’d have to admit the secret system existed
  • The 2 common denominators of everyone online is that they have all watched porn at one time or another, and they all store photos and videos of their family
  • He put all of his affairs in order as if he was gonna die
    • He couldn’t tell anyone what he was doing obviously. He felt guilty about everything except what his government would accuse him of

Chapter 26: Hong Kong

Chapter 27: Moscow

  • He was stuck in the Moscow airport for 40 days and 40 nights as nobody would grant him asylums

Chapter 28: From the Diaries of Lindsey Mills

  • Volcanoes are only destructive in the short term. In the long term, they move the world
    • They create islands, cool the planet, and enrich the soil

Chapter 29: Love and Exile

Main ideas / Themes:

  • A life is what we love and what we believe in
  • The freedom of a country can only be measured by its respect for the rights of its citizens
  • To hack a system requires getting to know the rules better than the people who created it or are running it. Hackers aren’t breaking the rules as much as debunking them
  • Let people underestimate you. It merely points out their own vulnerabilities
  • We cannot erase our past that shames us. We can control our reaction by accepting its lessons, growing, and moving on
  • Technological innovations tend to outpace moral, legal, and ethical restrains
  • The fundamental rule of technological progress: if something can be done, it probably will be or possibly already has been done
  • Stellar Wind signaled the shift from targeted surveillance to mass surveillance by redefining citizens’ private internet communications as potential signals intelligence
  • Technology doesn’t have a Hippocratic Oath. Many decisions have been made on the basis of “can we?” instead of “should we?”
  • In regards to our personal data, there’s no property less protected and yet no property more private
  • Giving up your freedom means giving up everyone else’s
  • Encryption is the single best hope of fighting surveillance for any kind
  • Volcanoes are only destructive in the short term, but move the world in the long term

Closing thoughts:

I really enjoyed this book. Not only was it a captivating narrative about a public figure who reshaped our political environment, it was also a fascinating dive into the technology world AND then intelligence world.

I took a class on Intelligence during my last year of undergraduate studies and it was one of the most interesting classes I took. In fact, it was one of the reasons why I wanted to go into government and eventually the military afterwards. However there was never a clear path into the intelligence community that I knew of, so I think I gave up on that idea.

The concepts I learned about however were so interesting. And after reading this book, it reminded me of how much I remembered learning about the intelligence community, such as the structure, the vocabulary used, and international relations. I also remembered what it was like when I worked in a government agency after I graduated. I even visited the CIA so I had really good context when I was listening to this book.

I think it’s always important to get as many sides of the story as possible. Back in 2013 when all of this whistleblowing and NSA scandal was going down. I was actually living in D.C. and went to a public panel about the IC community. I’ve heard what the media told us about Edward Snowden and how he leaked NSA mass surveillance programs. But the narrative was that it was just passively collected and not really an issue because all of the noise is impossible to sift through. I kind of just accepted it as “yeah, that makes sense. It shouldn’t really hurt anyone who doesn’t have anything to hide, right?”

But now after reading about Edward’s side and his perspective/context, it makes a lot more sense now. Yes, it’s not malicious on the surface, but giving up your inherent right to privacy because you don’t think you need it right now doesn’t mean that right should be given up by everyone.

I also liked how much the book educates the reader on technology, especially encryption and how to protect our data from surveillance. Sure, I’m a bit more paranoid now, but it’s important stuff that I think everyone should learn about.

One Takeaway / Putting into practice:

There are a small handful of really good contenders for my personal takeaways, one of which would be taking encryption seriously and my personal data privacy, haha.

However, the winner for my one takeaway would be:

  • Giving up your freedom means giving up everyone else’s

I think this point really shifted my way of thinking. Maybe it was small, or maybe it’s larger than I think. Or maybe it just reaffirmed an idea that’s been growing in my mind and it brought it to the surface.

But compared to how I used to think like back in 2013, I thought giving up freedoms for “protection” was acceptable. Now I know I was gravely mistaken. A country is only as it’s ability to protect the rights of its citizens, and I don’t think our country has been doing its best on this account. I think we need to strengthen our protections of our citizens’ rights in order to maintain it’s overall integrity.

I also thought it was distressing how Edward made his decision when he realized that the flaw in our country’s operating system (government) was that it believed it worked best when broken. And that’s extremely apparent in our current political climate.


Edward Snowden takes us through his journey in the worlds of technology and Intelligence Community, and the things he saw that led to him becoming a whistleblower.

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Rating: 5 out of 5.


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