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You Are Not ‘Innocent’

On the intersection of Edward Snowden with the wisdom of a Czech anticommunist dissident
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From Edward Snowden’s new memoir, Permanent Record, this passage about stumbling in 2009 across an extremely classified internal National Security Agency report detailing what the agency had been doing to gather electronic intelligence post-9/11. The report showed up on his desktop at his NSA outpost in Japan by mistake, because he was a systems administrator. The report he saw was completely different from the officially classified one the agency had previously released. In other words, the agency created a fake report for lawmakers, to conceal what it was really doing.

What the extremely classified report disclosed was “the NSA’s deepest secret”: the existence of a program called STELLARWIND, that collected every bit of electronic communication in existence, and stored it permanently. Here’s Snowden (p. 178):

[T]he US government was developing the capacity of an eternal law-enforcement agency. At any time, the government could dig through the past communications of anyone it wanted to victimize in search of a crime (and everybody’s communications contain evidence of something). At any point, for all perpetuity, any new administration — any future rogue head of the NSA — could just show up to work and, as easily as flicking a switch, instantly track everybody with a phone or a computer, now who they were, where they were, what they were doing with whom, and what they had ever done in the past.

Snowden explains that more important than the actual content of our messages are the “metadata” that surveillance agencies get from monitoring us. Metadata, he says, “is data about data.” It’s “all the things you do on your devices and all the things your devices do on their own.” A surveillant does not have to access the actual content of your e-mails (the “data”) to learn a lot about you from the metadata. For example:

the address you slept at last night and what time you got up this morning. It reveals every place you visited during your day and how long you spent there. It shows who you were in touch with and who was in touch with you.


There’s another thing, too: content is usually defined as something that you knowingly produce. You know what you’re saying during a phone call, or what you’re writing in an email. But you have hardly any control over the metadata you produce, because it is generated automatically. Just as it’s collected, stored, and analyzed by machine, it’s made by machine, too, without your participation or even consent. Your devices are constantly communicating for you whether you want them to or not. And, unlike the humans you communicate with of your own volition, your devices don’t withhold private information or use code words in an attempt to be discreet. They merely ping the nearest cell phone towers with signals that never lie.


I now understood that I was totally transparent to my government. The phone that gave me directions, and corrected me when I went the wrong way, and helped me translate the traffic signs, and told me the times of the buses and trains, was also making sure that all of my doings were legible to my employers. It was telling my bosses where I was and when, even if I never touched the thing and just left it in my pocket.

Reading this, I recalled my interview earlier this year in Prague, with Kamila Bendova, the Czech dissident and widow of dissident Vaclav Benda, who did a four-year prison stint for his anticommunist resistance. I interviewed Kamila and her son Patrik for my forthcoming book on resisting the present and coming soft totalitarianism. Kamila told me that she does not understand why people today are so careless about their personal data. She said (this is a quote from the transcript):

People still think that openness is all right. They think “I am innocent. I did nothing wrong. I don’t have to be afraid of anything.”

The truth is, said this old dissident, is that nobody collects this information innocently. Reading Snowden tonight brought home the hard-won wisdom of Kamila Bendova and the anticommunist dissidents who suffered under a totalitarian surveillance state.



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