Edward Snowden and our great cross-hatch

What do we do when a revelation is larger than us?

A couple of housekeeping items before today’s post:

  1. Thank you to Ben for this beautiful logo! Do you like it? I really do. I think it embodies the spirit of Normcore really well.

  2. Substack is fantastic for being ephemeral but that’s also one of its flaws. I added an archive of previous Normcore editions at the bottom of the newsletter for reference. Good/bad?

  3. People are sending me lots of excellent story ideas. I’m starting to have a hard time keeping track of them, so I’ve set up a Google form to collect them. Please share if you have any!

Ok, on with today’s program!

I consider Edward Snowden to be one of several people who have fundamentally changed the way I view the modern internet. I look to him for guidance in today’s insane, phantasmagorical new internet world, so I was very excited to read his memoir, Permanent Record, which came out a few weeks ago.

It starts with a bang.

(Even if he did collaborate with novelist Joshua Cohen, having watched Snowden speak and read other things he’s written, I ultimately believe most of the book was written by him. )

It’s impossible not to be drawn into his story.

What I find interesting about the narrative is that it’s so similar to what many of us have felt about the internet over the past twenty years, if we’ve been around long enough to see its various phases: first, complete enamorment, followed by anxiety, and then disillusion. At least, this was the path for me.

Snowden describes his early days on the internet,

Internet access, and the emergence of the Web, was my generation’s big bang or Precambrian explosion. It irrevocably altered the course of my life, as it did the lives of everyone. From the age of twelve or so, I tried to spend my every waking moment online. Whenever I couldn’t, I was busy planning my next session. The Internet was my sanctuary; the Web became my jungle gym, my treehouse, my fortress, my classroom without walls.

“As the millennium approached, the online world would become increasingly centralized and consolidated, with both governments and businesses accelerating their attempts to intervene in what had always been a fundamentally peer-to-peer relationship. But for one brief and beautiful stretch of time—a stretch that, fortunately for me, coincided almost exactly with my adolescence—the Internet was mostly made of, by, and for the people. Its purpose was to enlighten, not to monetize, and it was administered more by a provisional cluster of perpetually shifting collective norms than by exploitative, globally enforceable terms of service agreements. To this day, I consider the 1990s online to have been the most pleasant and successful anarchy I’ve ever experienced.”

Eventually, Snowden grew up, started working for the government, and discovered that it was collecting much more information than any of us realized.

The combination of deduplication and constant improvements in storage technology allowed the agency to store intelligence data for progressively longer periods of time. Just over the course of my career, the agency’s goal went from being able to store intelligence for days, to weeks, to months, to five years or more after its collection. By the time of this book’s publication, the agency might already be able to store it for decades. The NSA’s conventional wisdom was that there was no point in collecting anything unless they could store it until it was useful, and there was no way to predict when exactly that would be. This rationalization was fuel for the agency’s ultimate dream, which is permanency—to store all of the files it has ever collected or produced for perpetuity, and so create a perfect memory. The permanent record.


PRISM enabled the NSA to routinely collect data from Microsoft, Yahoo!, Google, Facebook, Paltalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL, and Apple, including email, photos, video and audio chats, Web-browsing content, search engine queries, and all other data stored on their clouds, transforming the companies into witting coconspirators. Upstream collection, meanwhile, was arguably even more invasive. It enabled the routine capturing of data directly from private-sector Internet infrastructure—the switches and routers that shunt Internet traffic worldwide, via the satellites in orbit and the high-capacity fiber-optic cables that run under the ocean. This collection was managed by the NSA’s Special Sources Operations unit, which built secret wiretapping equipment and embedded it inside the corporate facilities of obliging Internet service providers around the world. Together, PRISM (collection from the servers of service providers) and upstream collection (direct collection from Internet infrastructure) ensured that the world’s information, both stored and in transit, was surveillable.

It was this realization, when he was asked to put together a presentation on NSA operations against China, that started him down the path that would eventually lead to him becoming a whistleblower.

But there were certain aspects of what I was reading that disturbed me. I was reminded of what is perhaps the fundamental rule of technological progress: if something can be done, it probably will be done, and possibly already has been. There was simply no way for America to have so much information about what the Chinese were doing without having done some of the very same things itself, and I had the sneaking sense while I was looking through all this China material that I was looking at a mirror and seeing a reflection of America. What China was doing publicly to its own citizens, America might be—could be—doing secretly to the world.

And although you should hate me for it, I have to say that at the time I tamped down my unease. Indeed, I did my best to ignore it. The distinctions were still fairly clear to me. China’s Great Firewall was domestically censorious and repressive, intended to keep its citizens in and America out in the most chilling and demonstrative way, while the American systems were invisible and purely defensive.

But in the sleepless days after that sleepless night, some dim suspicion still stirred in my mind. Long after I gave my China briefing, I couldn’t help but keep digging around.

In the summer of 2013, he copied classified documents detailing the scope of the NSA’s programs, and left for Hong Kong to meet journalists that would write up the documents for international publications. (If you only read one part of the book, it should be the chapter called “Read-Write-Execute”, which reads almost like a thriller and details his well-planned data copying strategy as well as his escape.)

I had a similar experience. When I was growing up, the internet my was pathway to finding people like me, as I wrote in a piece about discovering Star Wars when I was young,

1997 was still the dog days of dial-up, and, being that I was an only child and my parents were usually busy,  I was constantly on it, trying to max out the time before I got kicked off AOL to the phone ringing.

I discovered that there was a whole culture, an ecosystem associated with people trying to extend the Star Wars universe as much as I hadn’t wanted it to end. I discovered there were novels, fan fiction, whole sites dedicated to trivia. I printed reams and reams of paper references, jokes, fan photos with hundreds of pages of color ink. I taped them up all on my walls with removable tape.

The internet, as I first knew it, was a playground, a learning experience, a way to connect with all of my friends, and to learn from strangers.

My path was nowhere near as radical, but the more I used the internet, the more I began to realize it was using me. I felt now that its power was something to be afraid of. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when this happened, but it was probably after my Gmail was hacked in 2009. When I saw the hacker logged into my account, using my Gchat (remember Gchat? RIP) to talk to his friends and order cell phones, I realized that the corner of the internet that I thought was mine, was really wide open to everyone else.

Around 2011, I started working in tech, and was thrown deep into the back-end of logging, user behavior analysis and web apps. Once I understood how information traveled across networks and was then used by the companies collecting it, I couldn’t unsee it.

I developed anxiety about Facebook:

Not only do you never know what your privacy status is (I just assume everything I post is public), but, more to the point, it sucks you in.

When Snowden became disillusioned, he sacrificed his career ($120k a year working a low-impact job as a SharePoint admin in Hawaii - although to be honest, if I had to admin SharePoint, I might take some drastic actions, too), his love life, and his family to reveal the depth of the government’s collections.

His revelations at the time were a second turning point on the internet for me. Even though I still had a little faith left, once I read what he had seen, my understanding of the internet as a secure, safe space was completely gone. At the time, I wrote,

It’s hard to say what it was about PRISM that drastically changed me.

On some level, I knew that the government had at least some knowledge of a lot of data about me. It’s obvious they have social security, medical, traffic information, income, and flight itineraries. It’s obvious that them having this level of information has drastically changed the lives of people who have accidentally found themselves on no-fly lists.

On another level, I’m fully conscious that what I do online goes to companies’ analytics departments and, from this blog to the public. At work, everything goes through work.  I treat myself accordingly. But it’s terrifying to me, absolutely terrifying, that PRISM can tie this up with my Facebook status, my searches, and, the scariest of all, my emails and chat logs, which are, I think, as close you can get inside a person’s mind in the digital age.

I’ve been thinking about all this stuff ever since, and I haven’t been able to stop.

To be honest, I was hoping that, in the book, he would have some sort of magical solution for this enormous problem that he uncovered.

Snowden said,

If mass surveillance was, by definition, a constant presence in daily life, then I wanted the dangers it posed, and the damage it had already done, to be a constant presence too. Through my disclosures to the press, I wanted to make this system known, its existence a fact that my country, and the world, could not ignore. In the years since 2013, awareness has grown, both in scope and subtlety. But in this social media age, we have always to remind ourselves: awareness alone is not enough.

But what were we supposed to do? In 2017, after writing about what Facebook collected in detail, I stopped posting there. I started using Duck Duck Go. I covered my computer camera with a sticker. I started using VPN.

Was any of this enough? In the book, Snowden makes a nod to GDPR, and talks about the importance of encryption. But, if Apple, Google, and Facebook are hosting NSA servers, can we, as individuals, really do anything about it?

The way I personally have been dealing with all of the things he talks about in the book is through cross-hatching. In “It’s Only a Joke, Comrade”, a book I’ve written about before, the author talks about the idea of cross-hatching: living with two very disparate realities at the same time by keeping them separate in your mind so you don’t get cognitive dissonance. Not unlike doublethink, but not specifically related to politics. In the case of the book, the author was talking about die-hard communists who loved the idea of the Soviet Union, and at the same time had to live through the atrocities of Stalinism and somehow deal with both realities.

In today’s world, it means that I cover my computer camera with a sticker and yet carry with me almost at all times a cell phone that can record my every move.

It means that I have stopped posting pictures of my kids online in public, but they’re still uploaded to Google Photos, which nicely organizes them, and uploads them directly to the cloud, through the NSA.

(Snowden writes, “One thing you come to understand very quickly while using XKEYSCORE is that nearly everyone in the world who’s online has at least two things in common: they have all watched porn at one time or another, and they all store photos and videos of their family. This was true for virtually everyone of every gender, ethnicity, race, and age—from the meanest terrorist to the nicest senior citizen, who might be the meanest terrorist’s grandparent, or parent, or cousin.”)

It means that I can explicitly refuse to leave an online footprint, yet I’ll go to a friend’s house and they have Alexa.

On the one hand, I use end-to-end encryption when I send pictures or private messages. On the other, does it matter? And if you use technology like Tor, you’re actually more likely to be targeted by the government.

On the one hand, GDPR, CCPA, and other forms of legislation are on the rise. On the other, are they effective?

If even experts like Snowden and Schneier are saying it’s almost impossible to opt out, what can those of us who are not at that level even do?

I’m sorry to end this post on such a negative note, but reading Snowden’s book and remembering his revelations and his enormous struggle for the truth, only to end up stranded in a country where he spends some of his time figuring out how to hide from dashcams truly has left me with more of the same questions rather than answers.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read the book. I think everyone should, and I think that it should also be taught in schools. Because it’s important. Because digital privacy now impacts all of us, across borders, whether we like it, or not. And because maybe it will keep more of us up at night, too, and maybe that’s what will lead to some solutions.

Art: Gustave Courbet, The Desperate Man, 1843

What I’m reading lately:

  1. Bumble goes from being mostly owned by Andrey Andreev to…Blackstone

  2. Maternity clothes suck (can confirm)

  3. This is the first open-source metadata catalog I’ve seen out there

  4. Horrifying next-level Amazon.

  5. Speaking of privacy

  6. Judgmental Greta watches all

About the Newsletter

This newsletter is about issues in tech that I’m not seeing covered in the media or blogs and want to read about. It goes out once a week to free subscribers, and once more to paid subscribers. If you like this newsletter, forward it to friends!

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I spent $1 billion and all I got was this Rubik’s cube · Die Gedanken sind frei · Neural nets are just people · Le tweet, c’est moi · The curse of being big on the internet · How do you like THAT, Elon Musk? · Do we need tech management books?
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About the Author:

I’m a data scientist in Philadelphia. Most of my free time is spent wrangling a preschooler and an infant, reading, and writing bad tweets. I also have longer opinions on things. Find out more here or follow me on Twitter.