The Man Who Refused to Hide Behind a Mask

A short review of 'Permanent Record'

The Man Who Refused to Hide Behind a Mask

Once, Oscar Wilde wrote "Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth."

For many of us, the Internet was and still is a mask.

A mask, called The Internet

Regardless of if you chose to do your activities on the Internet under your real name or your pseudonym, this technology helps us to discover our authentic voices.

Maybe because on the "internet" we are communicating through a system that lets us choose which part of us we reveal for our audiences.

It is ironic that while masks hide your face, they can bring out the true, depressed and imprisoned voice in us. And if we really believe in freedom of speech and freedom of expressions, you can't ignore the role of this revolutionary tool.

Many argue that the Internet brings the worst of us out. They have many examples of their argument. Just look at Twitter or Facebook. How much bullying, how much hate and uncivilized discussions are going on there?

But the counter-argument here is that this technology didn't invent these thoughts and behaviors. It just amplifies that.

It is like good wine which makes us more ourselves and let us represent ourselves in our real voices.

All these negative behaviors and ideas have existed before the Internet. But they were more hidden, and because of that, most of us were unaware of their existence. We were blindsided. And when these thoughts took the shape of the actions, we left surprised and helpless.

Now we are just aware of their existence, and while that may seem scary, it is a more realistic representation of the world that we are living in.

But the Internet also changes our lives. It also changed the government and business, and while it was evolving, people and systems of power started to take advantage of it. These interventions by the government and corporations changed the Internet into a double-sided blade. On one hand, it is an empowering tool that helps us to learn more, explore more, be more informed and don't let the 'Others' ignore us and our voices.

At the same time, it has made us the target. The target of new businesses and corporations and the target of the governments.

We all had some sense of this evolution. But none of us were ready to face the whole truth.

2013, when the world changed

And this is the reason why the world changed in June 2013. A series of articles appeared in The Guardian and The NY Times and other publications that shocked the world.

An employee of the NSA (National Security Agency) leaked tons of classified documents to journalists. These documents showed how we are all the subject of mass surveillance.

On June 9th, 2013, all screens around the world were broadcasting the face and voice of this whistleblower:

"My name is Ed Snowden, I'm 29 years old."

This was our introduction to the man himself. He did something that most of the whistleblowers try to avoid. He unmasked himself to show that while masks can help you to tell the truth, if you dare to expose yourself and tell the truth, then you can ignite a real change.

Snowden by Snowden

It was more than six years ago. During this long time, we all have heard about Snowden. For some of us, he is a hero. Some consider him the greatest villain of all time. But no one can argue that our world hasn't changed because of his actions.

He was the source of what media critic Jay Rosen calls the 'Snowden Effect.''

Edward Snowden is one of the most controversial people of our age. But we had a very narrow perspective of him and his mind.

Our most authentic view of his mindset came in the form of a documentary.

Citizenfour was the 2014 documentary directed by Laura Poitras that showcased the event of Snowden's revelations as they happened in realtime. Citizenfour won the Oscar for best documentary in 2015.

Snowden has done some interviews and speeches—most of them via the Internet since then. Although we know about the rationale behind his decision, we rarely had a chance to see the man and hear his life journey. The journey that put him in this unique position and finally led him to do what he did.

Now we have a chance to know him.

Permanent Record is the name of his memoir.

The book was published on September 17th, 2019, and on the same day, the US filed a lawsuit against it. Which probably helps the book to finds its way onto The NY Times bestseller list.

The book is well-written and well-structured, which would be a massive task for a man who had challenges finishing a 1000 word essay about himself.

This book has three main sections: Snowden's childhood until 9/11, his evolution after 9/11, from his decision to go to the military to become part of Intelligence community and how this journey created conflicts between what he believed and what he was doing, which finally led to the decision to reveal the secrets of mass surveillance. And then the third part is about what he really revealed and how.

This third part naturally has a lot of holes. And this was by choice. Snowden refuses to share the technicality of his leaks and also the contents of damaging documents.

But still, even for the people who have followed him during these last years, this part contains a lot of new and unheard information.

And before I forget, this book has an additional segment too, a chapter dedicated to the journal of Lindsay Mills, his partner and wife.

Reading this chapter makes your heart beat faster and get a shadowy sense of what she and Snowden's loved ones had experienced during those times.

There are many reporting about Snowden, his revelations and the effects of them, and there are many reviews of this book with the focus on Snowden, the whistleblower.

Though this is a fantastic part of the story, I find the story of Snowden, the person, more amazing and also familiar.

In the first part of his memoir, we are witnessing a child of the early internet age.

The golden age of early Internet

I remember those days. I am a little older than Snowden. But I was living in Iran, and the Internet came to my country a few years later.

I remember how, as a teenager, I was following the story of this new phenomenon. I was fascinated by the concept of it. A gateway to the information. A wormhole that could make a shortcut through space and time and put you in touch with other people.

I remember how I had been trying to learn about the Internet even before I had a chance to experience it myself.

Like Snowden and anybody in my generation, my introduction to networks was with the bulletin board system (BBS).

The network that I became a member of had different chat rooms, a news bulletin and some other features. But most importantly, it gave you a chance to have a magical post address: An email: A master key to meet people and talk to them directly.

One night our network provider posted an announcement on its chat room: "Tomorrow for an hour between 13 to 14 PM, we will give you access to the internet."

That was the first time. And I still can remember the excitement.

I agree with Snowden that people who are younger than us can't even start imagining the feeling. I am talking about one hour on the Internet with the dial-up modem and the speed of max 28 Kb Per Second.

That was surreal. I felt like a stranger in a strange land.

It was so many things and no time. So I did what Snowden writes about in his book. I started to copy as many materials on the hard drive as I could.

It was an experience out of this world, and while I knew that I couldn't recognize its effect entirely at that time, I was sure of one thing: my life wouldn't be the same anymore. I had a key to unlimited treasure of information.

Of course, my golden age of the Internet was even shorter than Snowden's. Not long after accessing the Internet through my home computer, our government started to impose filtering.

So it wasn't just that someone may be monitoring what you are doing online. The government wanted to enforce its 'parental' supervision.' The notion of filtering is simple. You, as a citizen, are immature to make the right decision, and we have to control and manage your behavior. And there are pieces of information that are not right for you.

And then came the idea of the technophobia. To sell the idea of filtering, like any other previous technology, the government started to argue that the Internet—as a whole—is a tool of evil. A plan that targeted our values and families.

Soon enough, the numbers of forbidden pages on the Internet surpassed the accessible pages. And that was the open invitation to find a way to go around this wall.

Many anti-filters, proxies and VPNs developed and circulated between people.

It is not surprising that these policies backfired. Now many people, even grandfathers and grandmothers, are fluent in using proxy systems on their smartphones.

During the green movement of 2009, Iranian youth started to use social media to manage their protests. To pass over the wall of filters, they were using technologies such as TOR, the system that Snowden mentions in his book and explains how he tried to create a bridge for Iranian users so they can access TOR from Iran.

While he wrote that he was never sure that anyone inside Iran was going to use it, I can assure him that people did use that.

Descending From the Olympus

Snowden, in his book, remembers his childhood and his appetite for new information. When his parent asked him to go to bed or restrict his access, he thought that he was going to miss some further development and knowledge. This appetite and desire to know more and more and access more information led him to what he calls the inevitable: the need for security clearance.

The curious boy who went to sleep with the fear of not having access to some new data couldn't stand the idea that there would be pieces of information out there that he couldn't access.

But when he had access to unlimited information, he realized that something was not right. It became more apparent to him that no matter how much we wanted to know everything, some things should stay secret for their owner (unless the law grants specific access to the information of a particular person of interest based on evidence and due process).

So the man who once wanted to know all decided to unmask the gods of surveillance. The man who once sat at the top of the Olympus and was watching us decided to descend from the summit and let us know how those gods were wearing disguises and spying among us.

This journey makes Snowden change or evolve into an advocate of privacy.

Permanent Record

This book makes you think. It makes you appreciate technology and at the same time makes you frightened. It helps you to take a look at the golden age of the Internet and how it changed during a short period. It challenges you. And, I have to say it is also a love story.

You don't need to be Snowden's fan to learn something from this book.

This book is just a window to the mindset of a person who happens to be the source of the most significant leaks in the history of the IC.

Is he a hero or a villain? Does it matter?

He makes a hidden prospect transparent for us. We can't unseen what he already has shown us.

What you do with this perspective is your business.

book reviews
Pouria Nazemi
Pouria Nazemi
Read next: Eliminating Bail
Pouria Nazemi

Freelance science journalist based in Montreal, Canada

See all posts by Pouria Nazemi