In association with the release of a Young Readers Edition of Permanent Record, Edward Snowden speaks with Cory Doctorow. One of the points to stand out was the importance of curiosity.

I say wait and take your shot when it counts right. I worked for the government and for many years I didn’t question what I was doing, I didn’t see anything that was truly meaningfully wrong. Over time, I encountered more and more rough edges on the system, more things that made me raise my eyebrow. I began to look and the more I looked the more I found, the more I found the more it affected me and eventually ultimately it changed me. I think that openness to inquiry is the most essential part, because we’re taught myths everywhere – Edward Snowden

It was interesting thinking about this alongside Tim Harford’s discussion of being curious when it comes to data.

“Cory Doctorow” in Pluralistic: 19 Feb 2021 – Pluralistic: Daily links from Cory Doctorow ()

Bookmarked The Age of Mass Surveillance Will Not Last Forever by Edward Snowden (Wired)

The power to end it is in your hands.

In a new introduction for Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother and Homeland, Edward Snowden reflects on the change in consciousness in the last ten years.

While the system itself was not substantially changed—as a rule, governments are less interested in reforming their own behavior than in restricting the behavior and rights of their citizens—what did change was the public consciousness.

This is something that Doug Belshaw discusses in his mapping of the internet.

In response, Snowden discusses the power of language to challenge.

You have heard that when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Herein lies the folly of every system of rule whose future relies more heavily on the omnipotence of its methods than the popularity of its mandate. There were times when empires were won by bronze and boats and powder. None survive. What outlasts each forgotten flag is our greatest technology, language: the empire of the mind.

It is interesting to consider this alongside Audrey Watters’ discussion of luddite pedagogy.

Liked Snowden: Tech Workers Are Complicit in How Their Companies Hurt Society (

Snowden said many in the tech industry believe their work is value neutral, making a comparison to the physicists who worked to harness the power of the atom believing it would be used to build clean energy. The result of course was one of the most devastating weapons in human history.

via Cory Doctorow
Bookmarked Inside the NSA’s Secret Tool for Mapping Your Social Network (Wired)

Mainway’s purpose, in other words, was neither storage nor preparation of a simple list. Constant, complex, and demanding operations fed another database called the Graph-in-Memory.

In this extract from Dark Mirror, Barton Gellman discusses the NSA’s development of Mainway, the database developed by the NSA uncovered by Edward Snowden. He explains the way in which contact chaining was used to develop a comprehensive social graph.

Double a penny once a day and you reach $1 million in less than a month. That is what exponential growth looks like with a base of two. As contact chaining steps through its hops, the social graph grows much faster. If the average person calls or is called by 10 other people a year, then each hop produces a tenfold increase in the population of the NSA’s contact map. Most of us talk on the phone with a lot more than 10 others. Whatever that number, dozens or hundreds, you multiply it by itself to measure the growth at each hop.

Contact chaining on a scale as grand as a whole nation’s phone records was a prodigious computational task, even for Mainway. It called for mapping dots and clusters of calls as dense as a star field, each linked to others by webs of intricate lines. Mainway’s analytic engine traced hidden paths across the map, looking for relationships that human analysts could not detect. Mainway had to produce that map on demand, under pressure of time, whenever its operators asked for a new contact chain. No one could predict the name or telephone number of the next Tsarnaev. From a data scientist’s point of view, the logical remedy was clear. If anyone could become an intelligence target, Mainway should try to get a head start on everyone.


On the back of Permanent Record, Edward Snowden reflects on some of the problems with smartphones, including the listening and tracking:

My point is not that you should use a smartphone like me, but that you *shouldn’t have to*. Privacy should not be a privilege, but because the legal system is broken, the average person today stands, at every stage of life, naked before the eyes of corporations and governments.

This system of predation has survived for so long because it occurs under the illusion of consent, but you were never asked your opinion in a way that could change the outcome. On the most consequential redistribution of power in modern life, you were never granted a vote.

The lie is that everything happening today is okay because ten years ago, you clicked a button that said “I agree.” But you didn’t agree to the 600 page contract: none of us read it. You were agreeing you needed a job; agreeing you needed directions, email, or even just a friend.

It wasn’t a choice, but the illusion of it. The consent you granted was never meaningful, because you never had an alternative. You clicked the button, or you lost the job. You clicked the button, or you were left behind. And the consequences were hidden for ten years.

I like Snowden’s point about consent. This was a part of my concern with mobile devices, although I did not capture it that well.

via Sebastian Greger