Ed Snowden In His Own Words

Permanent Record, Edward Snowden, 2009

Ed and Lindsay out in Moscow

Ed Snowden was only 29 years of age when he blew the whistle on NSA’s mass surveillance of all Americans (in fact on everyone in the world). Here is the story of his own arc of growing up, engaging in a highly successful technical career, and then deciding to throw it all away to tell journalists and the world what their government was secretly doing.

Ed was born in 1983, the year that ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency, later DARPA adding Defense to the title) made the ARPAnet (using the TCP/IP protocol) publicly available for the first time. In 1983 the Mosaic pioneer browser existed at the University of Illinois. The world wide web (WWW) was invented at CERN in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee. IBM introduced the PC in 1981, and Ed’s first computer, a Commodore 64 was introduced in 1982. In other words, Ed grew up at precisely the time that PC’s and the Internet were new. Ed became a very young, natural self described Geek and is mostly self educated since computers and the Internet were far more interesting than school and Ed was very talented in this new world.

Ed claims to be able to trace his ancestry on his mother’s side from the Mayflower itself and his fathers side to fighting in the Revolutionary War and every war thereafter. Early on his family moved from North Carolina to Maryland where his father worked on technology for the Coast Guard, and his mother worked at the NSA in human resources. Both parents held security clearances. Government service was the natural career path for his family. Unfortunately, modern government service requires a college degree and Ed finished high school with a GED. When the 9/11 attacks happened, Snowden signed up for army special forces and at 5’9″” and 124 pounds he went off to Fort Benning for basic training. He stress fractured a leg and the army, to avoid liability, granted Ed release from service with no black marks. While recovering from his injury, Ed came up with plan B. He would apply for a high level security clearance (requiring one year of vetting). The security clearance was granted and the CIA, much reduced after its failures in the 9/11 attack, hired Ed to babysit its headquarters computer systems. Thus started Ed’s meteoric but short career of government service which saw Ed stationed at the US embassy in Geneva Switzerland, and then, with the NSA, a stint at the Yokota Air Force Base on Honshu in Japan, and finally assignment to the NSA facilities near Waipahu Hawaii.

In 2009, while Ed was in Japan, a single document was flagged by the NSA’s repository as not belonging there. He noticed the document was classified TOP SECRET//STLW//HCS/COMINT//ORCON/NOFORN. STLW stands for STELLARWIND. Ed says only a few dozen people would have access to this document (plus system administrator Ed Snowden). This document was the authorization for mass surveillance of all American’s communications. Neither anyone in Congress nor the White House would have access to this document. The NSA continued to deny it was mass surveilling Americans. Daniel Ellsberg, in his Doomsday Machine book about our nuclear program describes the security classification system and security clearances that are understood by almost noone in politics nor the public.

Meanwhile the age of surveillance capitalism was fast arriving with Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, etc. gathering and exploiting users data for profit. Worse, they were freely sharing this private data with the government. Ed says he (his right to privacy) was first betrayed by his government, then by his beloved Internet, and finally, by his own body. He was diagnosed with epilepsy (not the grand mal seizure variety) and took the job in Hawaii to reduce his level of stress. In Hawaii, he had the leisure to start collective data to prove the NSA was spying on everyone and to further understand the different programs and tools available to the NSA and its contractors. His final exploration was of the program XKEYSCORE which allowed the government and its contractors to find anything about a persons digital history.

Bill Binney

Ed here honors his whistleblower predecessors from Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo to Thomas Tamm who reported extensively on warrantless wiretapping in the mid 2000’s. Included are Perry Fellwock, who in 1971 revealed the existence of the NSA for the first time. He also lists Bill Binney, The Good American, Drake, Wiebe, and Loomis. Finally special mention of Chelsea Manning for leaking war crimes documents via Wikileaks. He gives special thanks to Sarah Harrison, journalist and editor for Wikileaks, who arrived in Hong Kong to assist Ed in his search for asylum and who accompanied Ed to Moscow.

Poitras Greenwald Lindsay Citizenfour Oscar

Ed does a good job of describing the ever increasing use of contractors by the government. He attributes this trend to budget issues and seems unaware of the worldwide neo liberal political movement to attempt to privatize all previously public functions of government from education to defense to incarceration to water. This privatization is highly profitable, leads to corrupt revolving door policies where government officials are able to grant contracts and special privileges to private for profit corporations with the understanding that they will be rewarded when they leave government to join the very companies they enriched.

For more on the surveillance state, see this work that includes Snowden’s disclosure.

Ed believes that the only current way to control surveillance is through the extensive use of encryption which the government cannot break. He also advocates the use of TOR or “onion routing” which uses a worldwide network of TOR servers to break the connection between the originating IP address and the destination IP address making it impossible to track communications using IP addresses. TOR was developed by a mathematician and a computer scientist at the Naval Research Laboratories and was designed to protect military and government communications using the public Internet. Ed was teaching classes in these subjects in Hawaii when he blew the whistle. Ed was also handing out printed copies of the US Constitution to his coworkers. This at the same time a supposedly constitutional law professor, Barrack Obama, was in the White House busily ignoring the very Constitution he was supposedly so expert at.

Ed decries the rise of cloud computing as a return the bad old days of centralized mainframe computing and points out your cloud computing authorization contract passes ownership of all your data to the cloud’s owners. If your data including photos are in a cloud they are no longer yours.