Why you need to read this book

Edward Snowden - Permanent Record ISBN 978-1529035650

I am shocked to the core after reading Edward Snowden’s book Permanent Record. I think it’s possible you will be too if you read this book. This book was written 6 years after the then 29 year old Edward Snowden exposed the US government’s mass surveillance system. He documents his life, career and the events that led up to this exposure and his concerns about how people’s data is being collected and used. He also explains his personal circumstances and the consequent high personal cost to his freedom that resulted from his actions.

This book is not a poor me whistleblower account, but rather it contains information that is essential reading for everyone simply because surveillance on this magnitude without lawful permission affects everyone. You may think this doesn’t affect you, but it’s not what you think you know about yourself that is the problem - it’s how other people interpret data held about you that’s the real issue and this book goes into that in detail.

There is a common misconception where people think and say that they haven’t done anything wrong, my life’s an open book, I’ve got nothing to hide. And yes that might well be a correct interpretation you have about yourself. The problem is your opinion about yourself  doesn’t count when someone else is analysing your data or behaviour, or wishes to do you harm or just wants to know what you’ve been up to.

If you’ve ever been online, and let’s face it nearly everyone has, then you have a digital identity and you’ve left a digital trail. The content that you look at is to some extent protected by law, but the metadata that records where you have been and what you have looked at is the type of data that surveillance systems want to record about you and the laws pertaining to this type of data and your personal rights to this data have been circumvented and eroded, particularly in the name of national security and potential terrorism threats, since 9/11.

Metadata knows about every website you ever visit, either genuinely or mistakingly, every link you follow, the things you buy, the photos you look at, the music you listen to, the videos you watch, your smart TV and smart speaker can record you in your own home, your smart fridge even knows when you’ve run out of milk. Your smart phone records where you are, where you’ve been and knows who you’ve communicated with and how and when. All this data is time stamped and filed away forever so that it can be looked at in detail and analysed if not now - then at some future point - when or if you become a person of interest. Basically everything you do online can be recorded and stored about you forever. The criteria for what constitutes a person of interest is set in accordance with the wishes of your then current government.

Shocked by this? If not, consider this...

Remember - you have nothing to hide - you consider yourself a model citizen - but it’s not your opinion about yourself that matters. It’s the person who is looking at your data and the conclusions that they draw which can be manifestly misinterpreted or skewed to fit a  narrative about you. Thus making you vulnerable and powerless to react when you have done absolutely nothing wrong.

Years ago before the internet age, life’s fears could be: being mistaken for someone who had committed a crime or being accused of doing something simply because you were in a place at the wrong time. Or simply being mistaken for a criminal because you have the same physical characteristics. While these things can still happen, the digital equivalent of this today is something similar to how your metadata is interpreted and by whom and for what purposes.

Consider some of these actions you may have taken:

Think about what you posted online as a child, teenager, young adult, or simply a year ago - think about your life now, what you thought about passionately then and made your opinions known online at that time may have radically changed from then, but that data is a digital snapshot that has been taken about you at that time.

Did you join a club or organization that was completely innocuous, but later turned into something you didn’t agree with or changed to a direction you didn’t want to be part of so you left. Again that snapshot data has been timestamped and recorded about you as being a member at that time.

Then there are the photos you, or others, have posted about you online looking drunk, wasted, naked or simply in fancy dress at a party and just having fun. It’s all about context, innocent pictures at that time that could tell a different story later or used in a negative context against you.

Just a few examples that do not even go into personal data such as your religious beliefs, gender identity, medical history, work history, causes and ideas you support, protests you attend, stories about you, your family, your friends.

So we all have multiple digital lives that record data snapshots of what we thought or did at a particular time. The problem of course is that what was perfectly acceptable at a time and place in the past may not be in the present or future. This means that we are all susceptible to whatever current or future interpretations may be applied to our data! We simply have no control over this and we certainly did not sign up for this when all we wanted to do was use the internet or our mobile phones!

While the majority of us will live peaceful, contented lives and not come into harm’s way - we cannot guarantee that our historical digital footprint won’t become of interest to governments in the future. It only takes one policy to change for you to become a person of interest and then everything you ever did - even if it was perfectly innocent - could be forensically analysed and possibly misinterpreted to fit the current narrative.

All this seeming a bit too paranoid? Maybe, the point is no one asked me for my permission to store every minute detail about my digital online life about me. Did they ask you?

Footnote: The proceeds from this book go straight into the US government’s coffers as per a US Department of Justice ruling in December 2019. Nothing goes to either Edward Snowden or his publishers. I still urge you to buy this book, read it and then gift it to family and friends simply because you need to know why your digital identity belongs to you and only you.

Further reading:

Je hebt wél iets te verbergen van Maurits Martijn en Dimitri Tokmetzis (in Dutch)