FILE – In this Feb. 14, 2015 file photo, Edward Snowden appears on a live video feed broadcast from Moscow at an event sponsored by ACLU Hawaii in Honolulu. The Valley News reports that Snowden, a former National Security Agency worker, will participate in a 30-minute discussion and Q&A at the New Hampshire Free State Project’s convention in Manchester in February 2016. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia, File)
In his new book, entitled “Permanent Record,” NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden takes the reader into the shadowy world of espionage. He recounts why he leaked highly classified NSA information to the media and discusses his fears as advances in facial and pattern recognition technology and AI make the world a more dangerous place.
Snowden spoke to both the Guardian and Der Spiegel about his life in Moscow where he sought asylum in 2013. The most fascinating parts of both interviews are his warnings about the future. For example, he told Der Spiegel, “Everywhere political classes and commercial classes are realizing they can use technology to influence the world on a new scale that was not previously available. We are seeing our systems coming under attack.”
The most frightening part of the interview with Der Spiegel, for me at least, was the realizing how easily the government can spy on us. (I’ve just placed duct tape over the camera on my laptop.) Snowden tells the reporter:
In my last position I was an infrastructure analyst. There are basically two forms of mass surveillance analysts at the NSA. There are persona analysts, all they do is read people’s Facebook traffic, their chats, their messaging. Infrastructure analysts are frequently used for counterhacking. We’re trying to see what others have done to us, without having names or numbers. Instead of tracking people, you’re tracking devices.
We would, for instance, track a computer in a library and turn on the camera to actually watch the users. And you would record it and store the video file away in case it ends up being interesting later. We’ve got a ton of like up-nose pictures from Iraqi cybercafés. So somehow I came across a recording of this guy who was an engineer somewhere in Southeast Asia and had been applying for a job in some university that was suspected of being related to a nuclear program or a cyberattack. I don’t even remember because there’s always some justification. And this man had his child on his lap, which was innocently banging on the keyboard.
I knew that I was using tools of mass surveillance. But it had been all very abstract. And suddenly you actually see a person looking at you through the screen. They don’t know they’re looking at you, of course. But you realize that, as people are reading, we are reading them. And these systems had gotten this far without anyone knowing.
Here are some of the highlights:
Der Spiegel: Was that your motivation when you entered the world of espionage?
Snowden: Entering the world of espionage sounds so grand. I just saw an enormous landscape of opportunities because the government in its post-9/11 spending blitz was desperate to hire anybody who had high-level technical skills and a clearance. And I happened to have both. It was weird to be just a kid and be brought into CIA headquarters, put in charge of the entire Washington metropolitan area’s network.
Der Spiegel: Was it not also fascinating to be able to invade pretty much everybody’s life via state-sponsored hacking?
Snowden: You have to remember, in the beginning I didn’t even know mass surveillance was a thing because I worked for the CIA, which is a human intelligence organization. But when I was sent back to NSA headquarters and my very last position to directly work with a tool of mass surveillance, there was a guy who was supposed to be teaching me. And sometimes he would spin around in his chair, showing me nudes of whatever target’s wife he’s looking at. And he’s like: “Bonus!”
Der Spiegel: You became seriously ill and fell into depression. Have you ever had suicidal thoughts?
Snowden: No! This is important for the record. I am not now, nor have I ever been suicidal. I have a philosophical objection to the idea of suicide, and if I happen to fall out of a window, you can be sure I was pushed.
Der Spiegel: You write that you sometimes smuggled SD memory cards inside a Rubik’s cube.
Snowden: The most important part of the Rubik’s cube was actually not as a concealment device, but a distraction device. I had to get things out of that building many times. I really gave Rubik’s cubes to everyone in my office as gifts and guards saw me coming and going with this Rubik’s cube all the time. So I was the Rubik’s cube guy. And when I came out of the tunnel with my contraband and saw one of the bored guards, I sometimes tossed the cube to him. He’s like, “Oh, man, I had one of these things when I was a kid, but you know, I could never solve it. So I just pulled the stickers off.” That was exactly what I had done — but for different reasons.
Der Spiegel: You even put the SD cards into your mouth.
Snowden: When you’re doing this for the first time, you’re just going down the hallway and trying not to shake. And then, as you do it more times, you realize that it works. You realize that a metal detector won’t detect an SD card because it has less metal in it than the brackets on your jeans.
Der Spiegel: You describe your arrival in Moscow as a walk in the park. You say you refused to cooperate with the Russian intelligence agency FSB and they let you go. That sounds implausible to us.
Snowden: I think what explains the fact that the Russian government didn’t hang me upside down my ankles and beat me with a shock prod until secrets came out was because everyone in the world was paying attention to it. And they didn’t know what to do. They just didn’t know how to handle it. I think their answer was: “Let’s wait and see.”
Der Spiegel: Do you have Russian friends?
Snowden: I try to keep a distance between myself and Russian society, and this is completely intentional. I live my life with basically the English-speaking community. I’m the president of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. And, you know, I’m an indoor cat. It doesn’t matter where I am — Moscow, Berlin, New York — as long as I have a screen to look into.
Snowden tells a Guardian reporter that he is an “indoor cat by choice,” who is “happiest sitting at his computer late into the night, communicating with campaigners and supporters.”
Below is a timeline prepared by the Guardian.
21 June 1983: Edward Joseph Snowden is born in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, US.
2006-2013: Initially at the CIA, and then as a contractor for first Dell and then Booz Allen Hamilton, Snowden spends years working in cybersecurity on projects for the US National Security Agency (NSA).
20 May 2013: Edward Snowden arrives in Hong Kong, where a few days later he meets with Guardian journalists, and shares with them a cache of top secret documents he has been downloading and storing for some time.
5 June 2013: The Guardian begins reporting the Snowden leaks, with revelations about the NSA storing the phone records of millions of Americans, and the agency’s claim its Prism programme had “direct access” to data held by Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants.
7 June 2013: The US president, Barack Obama, is forced to defend the programmes, insisting that they are adequately overseen by the courts and Congress.
9 June 2013: Snowden goes public as the source of the leaks in a video interview.
16 June 2013: The revelations expand to include the UK, with news that GCHQ intercepted foreign politicians’ communications during the 2009 G20 summit in London, and that the British spy agency has also tapped the fibre-optic cables carrying much of the internet’s traffic.
21 June 2013: The US files espionage charges against Snowden and requests Hong Kong detain him for extradition.
23 June 2013: Snowden leaves Hong Kong for Moscow. Hong Kong claims that the US got Snowden’s middle name wrong in documents submitted requesting his arrest meaning they were powerless to prevent his departure.
1 July 2013: Russia reveals that Snowden has applied for asylum. He also expresses an interest in claiming asylum in several South American nations. Eventually Ecuador, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Venezuela offer permanent asylum.
3 July 2013: While en route from Moscow, Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, is forced to land in Vienna after European countries refuse his plane airspace, suspecting that Snowden was on board. It is held and searched for 12 hours.
1 August 2013: After living in an airport for a month, Snowden is granted asylum in Russia.
21 August 2013: The Guardian reveals that the UK government ordered it to destroy the computer equipment used for the Snowden documents.
December 2013: Snowden is a runner-up to Pope Francis as Time’s Person of the Year, and gives Channel 4’s “Alternative Christmas Message”.
May 2015: The NSA stops the bulk collection of US phone calling records that had been revealed by Snowden.
December 2016: Oliver Stone releases the movie Snowden featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Melissa Leo, Tom Wilkinson, Zachary Quinto and a cameo by former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger.
January 2017: Snowden’s leave to remain in Russia is extended for three more years.
June 2018: Snowden says he has no regrets about his revelations, saying: “The government and corporate sector preyed on our ignorance. But now we know. People are aware now. People are still powerless to stop it but we are trying.”
March 2019: Vanessa Rodel, who sheltered Snowden in Hong Kong, is granted asylum in Canada.
September 2019: Snowden remains living in an undisclosed location in Moscow as he prepares to publish his memoirs.