CONTROL: In his memoir, Edward Snowden reveals how he helped build the mass surveillance system and what his motivations were to bring it down
Francesca Borri
Italian journalist and writer. She contributes regularly to Modern Times Review.
Published date: September 30, 2019

What’s the point of a smart fridge? Of a fridge connected to WiFi, and thus to your entire home – your oven, your hoover, your doorbell. It can be a music player too or a phone. Is it really just to warn that your milk is about to expire?

We feel more and more in command by the day, and yet that smart fridge doesn’t communicate to us. Rather, it communicates about us. We are not in control. We are under control.

The world’s most wanted

When he fully grasped this, Edward Snowden (36), a software developer for the US’ National Security Agency (NSA), a mastermind of its mass surveillance programs, told all of it to the Guardian: turning into the world’s most wanted man.

Snowden is now at large. Charged with espionage. He might, even, serve a life sentence, and yet, he didn’t break the law. Quite the opposite. He’s been abiding by it more than most: the Constitution upon which, on the first day of his new job, he swore to defend from all its enemies, external and internal. As working for the government doesn’t mean working for the public, Snowden now acknowledges this in is his new memoir: «And so today I spend my time trying to protect people from what I once was».

Maps of our lives

It wasn’t a new story, actually. A senior CIA analyst had already revealed that the United States could track any communication, not only of specific subjects, and for specific concerns, but of all, indefinitely. Edward Snowden, indeed, had made this all possible by finding a way to decrease data size, in turn increasing storage space for where to index. Still, no one had really realized what this meant: «because we think of mass surveillance in terms of contents. While it is about metadata, rather than data», Snowden says. That is, information derived from other information. «In a phone call, for example, metadata include the call’s day and time, its length, the number you called and the number you called from. And their localization. And they tell much more than your actual conversation. Because together with all others», our credit cards, Facebook pages, smart fridges, «in the end they outline a map of our life». To too many, he says, this sounds like a minor issue. A privacy issue. They reply that they have nothing to hide: «It’s like saying that you don’t care about freedom of expression because you have nothing to say».

We are not in control. We are under control.

Now, not only, can you collect information about everybody, it is recorded forever. The files we delete can always be recovered, as is the case with our emails and text messages. Everything. «Imagine. All the big, little secrets that might ruin your marriage, or your career. Your closest relationships. That only line of coke that you snorted when you were a student. That night when you were drunk, and you slept with your best friend’s girlfriend, who is now his wife, a night you both promised never to talk of. Or the abortion you underwent when you were a teenager. Or perhaps it is just about a petition you signed, a protest you joined», he says. «We all have something to hide. We all have compromising information buried somewhere out there among the bytes». And now, in the US archives. And also in the archives of whoever buys it. Or steals it.

Like many other Americans, Edward Snowden enlisted for the military after 9/11. But the day of bin Laden’s death, ten years later, he watched his country celebrating victory: wondering what it was all about. There had been ten years of erosion of civil liberties. The same civil liberties the United States pretended to be fighting for. Terrorism had turned into an excuse; a vague threat, that required total surveillance – and so, he says, «not only we didn’t win, but we lost: we lost the difference between us and them».


The Internet of his childhood, the free Internet, a space for debate and exchange, is now more a space for profit and power. «Technology isn’t used anymore to defend the country», he says, «but to control it». So, Snowden reached out the Guardian, at last. Signing his message: CitizenFour.

«today, I spend my time trying to protect people from what I once was»

This name actually referred to his three most renowned forerunners, who had exposed the Vietnam crimes. But his nickname has been widely viewed as a tribute to the Fourth Estate: the media, and their role as watchdogs of democracy. A role reshaped by Wikileaks now played diffusely. As this book looks like one on computers and technology, it is also the opposite, a book on humans and our oldest dilemma: the choice between legal and moral rules. Since, sometimes, loyalty is a form of betrayal, and betrayal a form of loyalty, that’s why this is the story of all of us. Not just because we are all monitored, but also because, like Snowden, we are all gears of injustice. Inadvertently, perhaps, while we simply work on software to decrease the size of data.

We are essential because computers are machines led by us. We can change them, as tanks need drivers and jets need pilots. As Bertolt Brecht said, man can do anything, can fly, can kill, but he has a flaw. He can think.

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