Book Review: The many-eyed gargoyle

31st Jan 2020
Book Review: The many-eyed gargoyle

Permanent Record.  Edward Snowden. Pp 339. 2019.  PanMacmillan Publishers

All people are ordinary, it is their choices that make them extraordinary. Edward Snowden epitomises the power of one principled choice of an unexceptional human being.

Permanent Record is the story of Snowden who worked in various intelligence agencies of the US and shocked the world when he exposed how the US Government was developing a system of mass surveillance which collected every phone call, text, message and email which enabled them to pry into the private lives of every single person on earth. This book tells us how he came into the knowledge and what led him to expose it.

This book reads like a slow-paced Bourne thriller, with none of the reassurances of a happy ending. It has plenty of inside information on how technology works and the ways in which we take its intrusion for granted. The process of him evolving to the point of departure from the system is excruciatingly slow but it is the knowledge that he acquires along the way is humbling, and better still relatable to a novice like me.

I was able to understand every acronym and what it stood for as Snowden made a conscious effort to explain the rules that govern technology. For example. He says, ‘In my communications with journalists, I used 4096 – and 8192 – bit keys. If we presume that an attacker takes one day to crack a 64-bit key… This meant that absent major innovations in computing technology or a fundamental redefining of the principles by which numbers are factored, not even all of the NSA’s cryptanalysts using all of the worlds computing power put together would be able to get into my drive. For this reason, encryption is the single best hope for fighting surveillance of any kind. (p271)

What was unnerving was how such a young and inexperienced person was given access to so much sensitive information. Snowden simply decided to do something about it. In these times when the power of the rich and the elite among us just seems to be increasing, this book gives you hope in the power of the individual and impact of principled decisions.

At the crux of this narrative is the conscious effort of the United States Government to collect all our information indefinitely. Once again, Snowden explained in layman’s term. It’s like ‘A spreadsheet containing every scrap of data about you… Everyone has something, some compromising information buried among their bytes – if not in their files, then in their email, if not in their email then in their browsing history. And now this information was being stored by the US government.’ (p198)

His turning point came in a chapter titled ‘The Boy.’ In what turned out to be a routine watching practice, he came across a father and his little boy that reminded him of his own family and that was enough to break him. The last bit of the book picks up pace; going from boarding planes to hiding in hotel rooms and waiting for an unknown person to knock on the door. But quickly stalls once he gets to Russia.

One of the best parts of the book which concludes it very neatly is excerpts of Lindsey’s – Snowden’s girlfriend who is the closest relation in the book – diary. It gives her perspective on the days that led up to Snowden leaving with one of the world’s greatest secrets and allows us to witness what happened on Snowden’s home front when he left.

It’s a lovely insightful, easy to read book; but by the end of it, I started noticing how all my actions are potentially watched and scrutinized – which is unnerving. Being watched is not worrying, it is the indefinite storage of our information and whose hands this information will go to is an unsettling prospect.

Aasiya I Versi

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Over 120 people attended a landmark conference on the media reporting of Islam and Muslims. It was held jointly by The Muslim News and Society of Editors in London on September 15.

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