Book Review: Permanent Record by Edward Snowden — What Do I Buy

Piyush Jain
33 min readJul 4, 2020


This book is a great read. The book is a roller-coaster ride of the life of Edward Snowden. His highs and lows, events, and situations that shaped his thinking. What he learns and what he thinks about it. The book summary is as impartial as possible and portrayed Edward’s opinion as he expresses it. Summaries of each chapter convey the short stories, leaving behind the smaller details, which one can enjoy while reading the book. The book conveys that your digital footprints are a permanent record that can be used anytime, anywhere.


I seek your pardon if I have made some errors/mistakes while writing this summary. Please let me know about them and I will correct them. Reading the book will give you a good perspective on the operational, technology, and legal aspects of Intelligence operations along with their evolution over the years. Sometimes one gets confused about how many systems are there and their purpose, but over time the reader gets clarity. Henceforth in this summary, I will Edward, Ed, or the Author.

The book has 3 parts.

Part 1 narrates his personal story so that we understand the character, who the author is himself. Why he is like that, what is his family history, and how he lands in an intelligence agency.

Part 2 states his experience with the intelligence agencies, different postings, modus operands, the rights, and the wrongs he sees and feels.

Part 3 narrates his exodus and the story of defecting from the system. What makes him think so, how does he plan and execute it?

Chapter 1: Permanent Record | Looking through the Window

The author starts by explaining his family composition, and what all he did when he was small. How he spied on his family members for fun. When video games were getting popular, they grabbed his attention. He enjoyed a nice bond with his father, for he too was interested in the same.

Chapter 2: Permanent Record | The Invisible Window

The author narrates his family history. He had a fascination for the armed forces as his grandfathers and his father was associated with it. With the upcoming of computers, and what approach his father had. He would see computers in the appliances. For his knowledge sake, his father would repair anything broken himself, instead of buying the new ones. This gave Edward an engineering bent of mind. Ed also tells about his first small computer program and how satisfied he felt due to that.

Chapter 3: Permanent Record | Beltway Boy

Ed’s parents move from North Carolina to Maryland due to his father’s posting. As Ed grows he gets inquisitive about his parents’ profession. He could understand that his mother is a clerk in the NSA, while he could not understand what his father does in the Coast Guard. Sometimes he is working off till late hours and often he gets gadgets that Ed could not understand the purpose of.

Chapter 4: Permanent Record | American Online

As he grows there is a new desktop machine with the internet at his home. The desktop machine got him passionate and got stuck like glue. He keeps on studying what he could find on the internet, be it software or hardware. Ed started suggesting solutions to the problems stated in the technical forums. He takes advantage of the curtain called the computer to hide his true age and identity to talk to people. He even changes names and interacts with people and receives some computer parts to his home using the fake name. It was easier during that time to do it, while it is not now. He explains how the internet became a necessity equivalent to water and electricity with an unlimited internet connection at home during the early 90s’.

Chapter 5: Permanent Record | Hacking

Ed explains how he uses his critical thinking. He explains how passionate he was with computers and thus ignored school. He took advantage of the flawed marking schemes to pass the subjects. A hack is a hack until it is not known. As soon as the teacher discovers Ed’s strategy, she immediately changes the plan. Ed also gets access to the confidential files of a prominent nuclear lab (Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory) of the US. Ed is able to access them for a certain duration and finds this wrong. He intimates the lab and after some time they revert with the note of thanks and offer for a job, which he could not catch as he was under 18 still. He also puts in a subtle warning, that if you would be trying this activity now, you would be coming under observation now.

Chapter 6: Permanent Record | Incomplete

The author narrates what was incomplete in his life. His parents’ divorce tore him apart. Due to this, how the tussle between the parents made him and his sister think about every aspect. They had to think about what to hide and what to tell their parents separately. What to assert on and what to not. His most tormenting experience was when once he got an assignment in school. He had to write 1000 words about himself. Divorce shattered him so much that he could not think about himself and had a difficult time understanding what he would like to tell the world about himself. Is it a cage or can divulge secrets about himself?

The break-in his education left him so incomplete. He had to see how to complete his education. He figured out that the General Education Development (GED) degree is equivalent to a high school degree, and has only 2 exams. Again a hack. He completed the same and is now a high school graduate.

Chapter 7: Permanent Record | 9/11

9/11 was a turning point on how America looked at everything. Ed explains how his life was going when he got a decent paying freelancer job. How it was repaying his educational loans for Microsoft certifications (MCSE). He could enter a military base without an ID or any other impediment to working for a lady who was running a small web development company. As soon as 9/11 occurs, there is big chaos in the whole of the US. All bases get fortified. After even the Pentagon attack, all Americans are scared as no one knows where the next attack may happen.

Chapter 8: Permanent Record | 9/12

Thinking of the Americans' changes, the attack left a big hole in the complete American cultural fabric. Some families were devastated, some businesses were ruined. The feeling of tension-free America vanished. There was a hysteria of revenge, the media too fueled it. Now in the US, it was “The US” and “them” (against the US). Ed realizes that this hysteria forced the US to the war. As if we are searching for an enemy and now since we have one, let’s go to war.

The US could have stepped back, thought about the approach, and united the world against terrorism. They fought a war, which further killed more than a million people. Ed feels suffocated being just a person behind the screen. He now wants his patriotism to come out and that comes with the drive to do something on the ground. He decides to join the Army, to which his parents are not happy at all.

Chapter 9: Permanent Record | X-ray

The author states his experience with the armed forces and how his family perceives it. What he was expecting to do in the army when he joined a special unit 18 X-ray was formed specifically after the 9/11 attack and what he wanted to do. It was more than a hacking game now. The recruits had strenuous training to test and build their mental and physical perseverance. His joys and sorrows are the same. What goes on in his and his friends’ minds, what they discuss, and perceive war as. Ed’s physical injuries do not allow him to continue further. The Army gives him “administrative separation” which is like annulment of the engagement. Annulment is not leaving or removing from the forces. During this time, he expresses his highs and lows. His interaction with his coursemates as well as fellow patients in the hospital.

Chapter 10: Permanent Record | Cleared and in Love

After the mental torture of exit from the Army, the author finds new avenues like working for intelligence agencies. He explains the level of clearance, specifically of the SCI (Sensitive Compartmented Information) department which requires TS (top secret) clearance. This would take more than a year to complete. He states his anxiety about any issue coming up due to his prior activities like comments on various games, web pages or banters with people when he was a teenager.

Though he was sure that these were harmless and nothing could be used against him, still, till the clearance came in, you never knew. This clearance would come after not only checking his stay and academic records but also about the interviews with all his acquaintances. He remembers all the follies he did with his teachers. During this time, he also goes on a dating spree and meets his to-be wife Lindsay Mills after making his profiles over many dating sites like HotOrNot, RateMyFace, AmIHot, FaceMash (now Facebook). Ed tells of the good conversation and confessions he has with her, as well as how honest Lindsay was with him.

Finally, for the top clearance, he passed the polygraph test in flying colors.

He is on the top of the world, having a beautiful girlfriend and a job in a top Intelligence agency.

Chapter 11: Permanent Record | The System

Ed narrates that he was looking after the computer systems that we’re storing a lot of information. He maintains the hardware as well as the software, but the operations are completely in the hands of the field people, and the way they use it, is not in control and without any limitations. This means the system is broken and it functions the best when it’s broken.

Chapter 12: Permanent Record | Homo Contractus

The author narrates that the Intelligence Community (IC) prefers to hire contractors. You are a hot cake if you have a top-secret clearance. Any intelligence agency can now hire you for any position. Ed narrates that he asked for 50K for his new assignment, and the contracting agency offered him 60k, and this deal ended in 62k. Isn’t this the inverse of the salary negotiations done in jobs? You would see your employer for the last time after that, as after those negotiations, you would be directly in the hands of the IC. The high earnings of the contractors also fueled the local economy. Rents skyrocketed and Ed had to compromise with a room in a basement.

Contracting also promoted education in language. He gives an example that the University of Maryland at College Park, opened a school CASL ( Center for Advanced Study of Language) for the people to study languages like Farsi, Dari, Arabic, and Pashto.

High contracting rates were a win-win for all. The Intelligence Agency could pay the high contracting rate as this was a part of an anti-terror program. The selectors of the contractors would also get some kickbacks from the contracting agencies. Contractors would also not be a long term liability for the IC. Contracting agencies would get good money. The contractor would earn good money. Ed could not imagine earning 62K at the age of 22.

Contracting was so popular that there would be big fares in 5-star hotels and youth would line up to be hooked by many agencies like COSMO, Dell, Lockheed Martin, Booz Allen Hamilton, DynCorp, BAE Systems, Titan, and many more.

Chapter 13: Permanent Record | Indoc

Ed narrates his experience of working at the CIA headquarters at Mclean (Not Langley, Virginia as shown in most of the Hollywood movies). CIA trains all the new recruits in the internal process called Indocs (Indoctrination). They were convinced about their special position, as they were chosen to keep the mysteries and the secrets of the state. They will be knowing the truths and facts that no one in the country knows, not even the Congress and the courts.

He further tells about the working culture in the CIA. The Government employees are called the “Govies” and they were assigned mundane desk jobs after they were frustrated with field postings. The major workload was with the contractors. After some time, Ed gets a night shift, where he meets people and gets to know some more secrets like internal Facebook and Google of CIA. He was surprised to see that they had access to information and news are not available outside at their fingertips.

Moreso, he explains the structure of CIA, that it consists of 5 bodies, DS (Directorate of Support), DA (Directorate of Administration), DI (Directorate of Intelligence), DO (Directorate of Operations), and DST (Directorate of Science and Technology). DO was responsible for actual spying. DS would give DO all the support. DI would further refine the results of spying. DA would take care of all outside communication and legal issues. Ed is assigned to the DST team. He would take care of the SIGINT through his server setups. Ed also observes that the CIA still uses many obsolete technologies and only a few people knew to carry out those processes. One of the examples is when the whole backup was taken on the tape drives every day using mechanical procedures. Ed says using the latest technologies, this task could be just a script away, instead of waiting the whole night for it.

After 9 months of tenure, Ed’s application to a new position with the CIA was accepted. His new workplace would be decided later.

Chapter 14: Permanent Record | The count of the Hill

Before going to Geneva, Ed is inducted as a TISOs (Technical Information Security Officers) also called “Commo Guys” and undergoes Basic Telecommunication Training Program (BTTP). TISOs are attached to an embassy in different countries and they know how to repair/destroy anything that takes electricity (can be plugged in). CCTV, HVAC, TVs, Solar panels, generators, anything you name it. Why destroy? Because in case of an attack on the embassy, they are the last ones to go out after destroying any electrical gadget that may give any sort of information. Anything that can have the CIA’s fingerprints will have to go up the air.

Ed also complains of the sub-standard facilities of living. The place they stay is very stingy. As Ed raises the issue with the superiors, the training coordinators are not too happy about it. Further on practice training, Ed has to go to a mountain where there is no light and he has to repair some electrical equipment. He does that as well as enjoys the star-studded sky and also talks to Lindsay while he was flouting the rules of the CIA and may possibly be disclosing the secret location.

As he did good in training, he could have been posted to SRD (Special Requirements Division) which are posts like Kabul, Baghdad, border areas of Pakistan, but he got posting around the European Champagne circuit in Geneva. This posting is perceived as an effort to please Ed as he had complained about the substandard living conditions during the training. Dean explained to him that since Ed is a bright guy, it would be a waste to post him to SRD. Instead of that, in Geneva, he will get the opportunity to expand the existing system.

Chapter 15: Permanent Record | Geneva

Do you know the “Frankenstein Effect”? It is also called a “Blowback”. This happens when you support the wrong thing for your personal motive and later that comes backs and bites you back in a bigger way. Ed states the examples of funding the mujahideen against the soviets who later became al-Qaeda; supporting Saddam Hussein grew his military, which later turned against the US. The US clandestine network is busy creating such Frankenstein monsters for itself worldwide.

CIA station in the US embassy in Geneva was one such station doing many experiments and growing its network. Geneva is a very rich source of potential targets as all the world’s top technology, economic, nuclear, communication agencies are seated there. IAEA, ITU, WTO, and many other top agencies are sitting here. Many bankers and statesmen have to be in Geneva for some, or the other reason. This is the place where the COs (Case Officers) are looking for prey. Ed works with them and pushes them to use SIGINT, while they were the people of HUMINT. Still, they work hand in hand with their own beliefs.

COs keep looking for prey and Ed helps them. In one of the instances, at a party, a nice gentleman is enjoying a party and Ed talks to him. He comes out to be a banker from Saudi Arabia. A CO now be-friends him and tries to look deeper into his life (and accounts) to find traces of terror funding. When he doesn’t find one, he gets him drunk at a party one night and forces him to drive. He gets caught in an accident and now local police fine him which comes out to be humongous as it is dependent on his earnings. He now comes to the CO for help and is further stuck in a loan issue after getting fake help from the CO.

Finally, the banker discovers the intention of the CO, and he cuts off all his connection with him. He also loses his job and he leaves Geneva. This way they ruin his life. From next time, Ed and COs decide that they will not mess up with anyone’s life like that. They instead will try to get his email and then do a SIGINT, to find more. If they catch one, it’s good, else the status quo is maintained.

Ed also explains further the use of TOR servers, networks, and onion routing. This way one could keep all of his browsing secrets. No one sniffing can know the source and destination.

With the intent of work, Ed also starts feeling guilty. He is the best in the world. While the US and many countries were facing financial crises during 2008, Geneva was thriving with a lot of money coming in. Local people and ex-pats were so rich, that they could pick up the whole store in a single go.

Chapter 16: Permanent Record | Tokyo

The author narrates his experience and learnings when he was posted in Japan at Yokota Air Base. Ed states that NSA has a humongous IT setup with the backup of data at all locations. Ed further narrates how they avoided all the files to transfer to all the locations using a deduplication mechanism, to detect changes on block level and only transmit those. He also finds that NSA focused on cyberintelligence while their cybersecurity was not very good. But he observes that anything that ever enters the file, will never go out and thus it will be a permanent record.

Further, he also states that even Tor browsers were hacked by the use of malware like EGOTISTICALGIRAFFE. Users would assume that it will not be an issue to search for anything, while that was not the case. They use TRAFFICTHIEF to crack into the VPN networks and sniff through all the traffic passing through. Ed further goes to design an advanced storage system (Storage Modernization plan) named EPICSHELTER.

He was further assigned a task to analyze the Chinese monitoring system. He found that the Chinese intelligence system was very comprehensive and could check all types of communications floating on the internet and phone lines. It had totalitarian controls. While doing this analysis, Ed feels that this is a complete reflection of the system that the US had built. The only difference was that the Chinese system was publicly announced while the US system was a complete secret. Ed supported that the system should do targeted surveillance and definitely punish the guilty. But the system was much more than that.

Further Ed sees that all communications between the US and other countries were tapped under PSP (President’s Surveillance Program) since 1978. After much furor, the program died a silent death in 2007. Wrong!! Before that itself legislation — Protect America Act of 2007 and FISA amendment of 2008 with their fine print, were deployed to continue the job. These programs were followed vigorously, involving 5 departments (Department of Defense, Department of Justice, CIA, NSA, and Director of National Intelligence). Ed discovers during this process that there is something like ECI (Exceptionally Controlled Information) available to the utmost dozen people on earth, with all the TOP SECRETS//STLW//HCS/COMINT//ONCON/NOFORN. Though Ed was not authorized to read it, he got a hand on it when someone left it in an unsafe place.

He finds out that STLW is the Stellarwind program, which does a bulk data collection program, and records would never be deleted. So if one wants to check out your previous connections, or wants to nail you for anything, it is very easy. Ed sees this, that this data is available to the agency, and if any rogue head of NSA gets behind you, you have no escape. You generate a lot of data knowingly and unknowingly, and both clubbed together can give a lot of clues about your intentions and motives. This data on further classification can give a macro and micro view. Once a macro view is understood, a certain macro can be zeroed in for detailed understanding.

Ed is disturbed looking at all this. He tries to deviate himself by enjoying the natural beauty in Japan but feels lost. The 2nd world war was the last “just war” which the US fought. He also suggested that computerization for holding the census gave ideas to the countries to perform other intelligence operations, in which the US was also included.

Countries would use these mass collection operations later to find scapegoats for suitable crimes they feel later anytime.

Chapter 17: Permanent Record | Home on the cloud

The author narrates that when he came back to the US from Geneva and Tokyo after 4 years, he felt that there was a lot of change in the country. He is assigned to one of the most prestigious projects of setting up a private cloud for the Intelligence Community (IC). Current IC had thousands of buckets from which they were drawing information, as well as there was no uniformity in a single similar task that the agencies performed. (For example — setting up a tent). They called this cloud “Frankie”, based on Frankenstein Monster. It would keep collecting data and that would be available to all ICs.

He also observes that the gadgets which have come now are collecting data on your behavior patterns. He states the example of the fridge. Apart from cooling, the fridge could note the freshness of the items, weight of the food in there, one could make a note for a reminder, make a call, play youtube videos, hear a song, etc. All the data is not in the fridge, it is on the cloud, for which you are paying up front in the cost of the fridge.

The author also states his concern about Amazon Echo/Google Home, which is sitting in your bedroom and listening to all the conversation. It will also obey your instructions if you call it. “Alexa, what is the temperature outside today?”. When the Government uses their regulatory power to get access to Google, Amazon, Apple, and others’ data, you are just left with the mercy of the state and it is a matter of time when the state does not like something, and you are done.

Further, the decrease in the cost of surveillance equipment and advancements in object recognition techniques, made it easier to deploy and collect data from any nook and corner of the city. Anybody with any suspicious activity (irrespective of the intent) could be detained. If you are dropping wet garbage in a dry waste bin, you are a criminal; you have played bingo for 5 hours while the law says 4, you are a criminal; the Speed limit is 35 mph and you drove at 36, you are a criminal; basically “ Put simply, a world in which every law is always enforced would be a world in which everyone was a criminal.

You have an option to leave Facebook, Instagram, email, and all these things, but then instead of freeing yourself, you are isolating yourself, because everyone else is on them, and it is a way to connect socially.

Ed also feels that he is overthinking it and has anxiety due to it. His job is of such a nature that he can predict the consequence if some state agency is behind you. If they pull out the data, all may come out, your personal, financial, work, and anything else, which tells the darker side of life and you do not want the world to know it. It can poison your marriage, career, relations with anyone, impact your finances.

Ed was so stressed out with these thoughts that he caught up with epilepsy. He had problems speaking, remembering things, mild hallucinations, and severe vertigo.

Ed felt betrayed by his country, the internet, and finally his health.

Chapter 18:Permanent Record | On the couch

The author could not sustain work pressure and complications in his health, to medical leave from the CIA. During this time he gave a lot of thought to what is going on. How are the states behaving? Is their behavior right? He analyses that in the US the politicians are using terror in politics to achieve their goals. They are not afraid of terror but afraid of looking weak against terror, so they use counterterror panic and the country’s unmatched capability, unrestrained policy, and disregard for rule of law for achieving this.

Author analyses why people revolt. There was an Arab spring going on. He states that in an authoritarian state, rights are given to the people, while in a free state, the state derives the rights from the people and is given to the state.

People come to the roads when their freedom is oppressed and they have no way to get it back.

The author states that even though all the data is taken, the US Government can’t completely oppress as they have freedom of speech, media, religion, peacefully assemble and protest as the constitution does not allow it. There is a thin line between rights and freedom.

Finally, he thinks about what do I do to circumvent this issue. He creates a Tor server for himself and he does all the browsing through that, and thus feel safer. The author states that if an individual could start Arab spring by setting himself on fire in the middle of the street square, then Ed could at least do something by clicking some keyboard buttons.

Chapter 19:Permanent Record | The Tunnel

The author is posted in Hawaii again. He escapes the stressful life of Maryland and is on the beautiful island of Oahu and working with the NSA operations center (also called The Tunnel) near Pineapple fields of Kunia. He enjoys the big house, beautiful surroundings, easy work (which he makes easier by automating). Lindsay also enjoys the surroundings and opens up a yoga room there.

He visits the island of Luau on demand of his girlfriend, and he likes it. It is a trip to a mystical island. He also sees that these islands ( Kane-Huna-Moku, Kahiki, and Pali-Uli) are untouched by technology.

The author doubts that these words may be used to hide secret documents, but does not find them in the repository he has.

Chapter 20:Permanent Record | Heartbeat

The author narrates that he gets a lot of time in Hawaii to read a lot and prepare a presentation which he would be giving at JCITA ( Joint Counterintelligence Training Activity) where he had a lot of friends. This agency came under the DIA (Defence Intelligence Agency). While preparing presentations and documenting things, and it would take the latest update which was similar to the ReadBoard (Internal CIA newsletter). There was another system JWICS ( Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System) which had complete data and was available for all NSA agents. They also called it the heartbeat. This data was stored in multiple backups, from Fort Meade to Hawaii tunnel. Most of the files disclosed by Ed were from the Heartbeat.

He bumped upon an interesting file which stated that “Sniff it All, Know it all, Collects it all, Processes it all, Exploit it all, Partner it All” with Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the UK (Five Eye Countries) are the primary countries, with which the US shares all the data.

Further Ed finds an order from a FISA court, which states the private companies to turn in private information to the federal government. Check out Section 215 of the Patriot Act aka the business record provision to turn in anything relevant for the terrorism investigation. Act 702 of the FISA amendment act, allows IC to target any foreigner outside the US for any wrongdoing which the IC may consider. This act promoted the Prism program and ultimately the upstream data collection. These 2 act enabled the ICs to take data from the telecom companies like AT&T, Verizon, Google, Apple, Yahoo, Facebook, Skype, Paltalk, Youtube, Microsoft, where they shared all the emails, photos, video and audio chats, search engine queries, browsing content and history, and all other data stored on the cloud. So when you query anything, it goes through a tool (read weapon) called TURBULENCE.

This is further divided into 2 stages of TURMOIL (passive) and TURBINE (active). All the data is read in TURMOIL. It will check all the metadata, credit card numbers, location, content. If TURMOIL flags your data, then it will go to TURBINE. This is now redirected to NSA servers which will start a malware program. This malware will be injected into your traffic. When it enters your machine, you will not know about it and it will pick up the other data in your machine too. Now your complete data belongs to them. (So while I write this summary, hope no malware has intruded my machine in the meantime 🙂 )

Chapter 21:Permanent Record | Whistleblowing

The fourth amendment of the US constitution states that “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Further 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th Amendments were designed to limit the government’s power and disallow it to do unlimited surveillance, while the Government will not do what is stated in the bills/acts, but life has changed now. My life is my data. Like our phones, email accounts, our computers. Will you allow anyone to even look at any of these things for even 10 minutes? So by this surveillance, the ICs have forfeited all your constitutional privacy interest. Furthermore, all the legislative and executive powers have willingly denied that this was the case. One of the examples which Ed gives is of James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence refutes all claims of NSA doing a bulk collection of data by any means.

The Judiciary was not far behind. When ACLU ( American Civil Rights Union) challenged NSA’s activities in federal court, the court turned down the case stating the ACLU should not have been here as neither ACLU nor their client has any proof that they have been exposed to any surveillance. The ACLU has no right to seek evidence too as they have no rights over the “State Secrets”. Further in the federal supreme court, the reasoning of the Government was accepted with the majority of 5 to 4 and dismissed the mass surveillance petition by ACLU and Amnesty International without even considering the legalities of NSA’s activities.

The executive branch just went ahead with the order of mass surveillance issued after 9/11. All the 3 branches (Judiciary, Executive, and elected Government) colluded and the program continued. IC was now above the law as they knew the constitution better than the 3 branches itself. The Constitution is now HACKED.

Ed sees how the state is able to interfere in the minutest of the details, like communication between people even outside the country, and control them. Ed further decides to be the Whistleblower. He has many thoughts where he is thinking of escalating the issue to his superiors, but that is futile as they are also part of the system. His only option is to go to the media (default the 4th branch of the state), as they are protected by the constitution.

Chapter 22:Permanent Record | The fourth Estate

Ed narrates that having to live with a secret that can’t be spoken of or to continuously keep on hiding your identity is a very difficult thing to do. He discusses the same with Lindsay too, that he wants to be the whistleblower and she is fine with it. When Ed checks out the fate of the old whistleblower, he sees that they were not taken seriously or had bad consequences as they did not hit the right chord. They did not approach the right people in the media, so no one took them seriously. So now Ed checks his options.

In one of the examples in 2004, where Eric Lichtblau and James Risen told the government of the wireless tapping program, the government convinced them to not state anything in the media as it would endanger America’s interests. Later they did expose this, but it was after the 2005 elections, so the impact of the revelation was very less.

Ed also sees that he needs to control how the revelation is made. He observes that the media is not able to appreciate many announcements though they are big and worth noting. Like that of starting an MDR (Massive data repository renamed to Mission Data Repository for the media), was announced with the facility as big as four 25,000 square feet halls with only servers to keep the data at Bluffdale, Utah. These could keep ALL the historical data since the inception of earth, with all communications old and upcoming.

No one except one journalist James Bamford observed it, but that also faded with time. 2nd incident was when James Clapper denies collection of any mass data while Ira Gus Hunt (CTO of CIA) openly admits in the conferences that they do a bulk collection of data. Further Ira Gus goes with Amazon for giving them a $600 million contract, leaving behind Dell and HP. Rumors were that the contract was rigged in Amazon’s favor. Further Ed is not able to believe himself that Ira Guss gave stingy presentations at the seminars and Q&A session to magazines where he divulged all secrets as if he was not able to digest them. These also had very little visibility on youtube.

Ed learns that if he has to disclose, to be effective, he will not offer secrets for free, as those will else be taken for granted. He would only talk to the journalist who has demonstrated the courage to speak against the system and stood on their beliefs.

He identifies Laura Poitras who made My Country, My Country, a movie on Iraq; Short movie “ The Program “ over William Binney who raised objections about the Trailblazer program (program before StellarWind), and she was also questioned a lot due to this work at the borders when she would leave/return the country.

The next one was Glenn Greenwald, a civil liberties lawyer and closely associated with the Guardian. Glenn would particularly report against the IC and have personal stakes as well on this reporting. Glenn further writes a book on Snowden as well. “ No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the Surveillance State “.

Now to disclose the secret, he had to keep himself and his traces completely “Anonymous”. For this, he built a system using the TAILS operating system. This would not leave any trace on the machine after it is shut, as well as generate a new MAC id every time. Ed does not use any public wifi as they would be prone to detect your mac address as well as you can be caught on a CCTV camera, so he set a wifi antenna in his car, with Kismet Software which would break in the less secured connections after hacking their passwords.

He would further drive around Oahu Island in Hawaii, keep searching for the spots, and email the selected journalist using the Tor network. He would send the emails to Lindsay too but later delete them too.

Chapter 23:Permanent Record | Read, Write, Execute

The author explains that the systems are designed in a manner that all activities done with the system will leave their traces. When Ed has to get the files out of the system, it can easily be detected and he can be in a big problem. Lately, the systems also have been upgraded that the files are existing in the heartbeat servers, and the local machines were acting as only dumb terminals with very little CPU and memory.

Since Ed is in the IT department, and there is a civilian version of the Heartbeat that is going to come out, he on the pretext of checking the compatibility of the heartbeat with older systems takes one.

Further to take the files out of the office premises, after evaluating all options, selects Micro SD cards. He takes up the night shift and keeps transferring the file in the Micro SD card. Transfer to these cards is very slow, which keeps Ed in a lot of anxiety as the data is transferring. He password protects and encrypts the data as well.

The next challenge is to get this SD card out of the office building which has security at all levels and that is intimidating. He uses his playful attitude here. Everyone knows that Ed is famous for playing with Rubix Cube. He jokes and chats with the security guards too on this. That day, he hides the SD card on one of the tiles of the Rubix cube, gives it to a guard to play when the other guard checks him to exit the building. Remember the scene in the Snowden Movie?

Further, he takes the files on some other machine at home but is haunted by the thought that still the origin of the files can be detected when he distributes the files. He had to choose between his personal welfare or the purpose for which he is doing all this. He chooses the latter.

Chapter 24:Permanent Record | Encrypt

In the previous chapter the author talks of reading, Write, Execute, but not of delete. This is an important functionality which we want to do. Delete old emails, files, traces, which may not be of use, or may impact us today. But this does not happen. If you are deleting from your local system, still files can be retrieved. If you are saving on the cloud, then you are in any case not the owner of the files. They may become inaccessible to you after deleting but can be retrieved. What is the solution?

Encryption: Ed states that if you password protect or encrypt your files, and the encryption level is good, then no one can ever decrypt your files. Encryption of 64 bit may take 1 day to break when you run on a decent computer. As you increase that 64 number, the time to break keeps doubling, so 65 bit, 2 days; 66 bits, 4 days; and 128 bits, around 50 million billion years. Ed used 4096 and 8192-bit keys for sending his communications. This encryption could only be broken if one compromises the key or the process to steal your key.

Another method is the “Zero-Knowledge scheme”. There are various methods of using this scheme. The author uses multiple key methods, where a single person doesn’t have the key and is distributed with many people in a specific sequence. If the sequence breaks due to whatever reason, the encryption cannot be broken then.

Ed keeps the data safe that way, and if one key is lost, then the whole NSA data with him would be useless.

Chapter 25:Permanent Record | The Boy

Ed goes down the Memory lane on how he started his career and felt that he did a fine career-wise as he rose in ranks in CIA as well as earned good money. As he makes up his mind to reveal the secrets, he visits places before leaving the US. He meets his old friends and family. He organizes things at his home as he is going to die so that no one has inconvenience after that.

Ed further elaborates on his experience with XKeyScore. He states that you could find the record for anyone in the world on this. XKeyScore could look at the past history of the person’s work, as well as intimate the CIA agent when the person gets online and see through his screen in the runtime. Be it a top US statesman or some guy having a business in Indonesia. They also had a free hand in searching for anyone, as this system was not disclosed to the world, and on what grounds would one be punished for doing what? He further tells about one of the data of everyone was easily accessible there.

Indonesian man (of a similar age as Ed) and nearly the same type of family as Ed, had applied for a job with Iranian University, somehow came under this net, and was being monitored. He is sitting with his toddler son and his son shows his face on the computer’s camera. Ed feels as if he is being watched. He feels so awkward that he immediately cancels the session and shuts down the machine.

Ed is checking out his options where he can go so that the US cannot extradite him easily. After running out of options in Europe, South America, Russia, and China, his safest bet is Hong Kong.

He is not sure when he will see his parents and Lindsay again. One fine day, when Lindsay is visiting some island in Hawaii with her friends, leaving a small note on the table, Ed packs up his bags with all the devices and leaves for Tokyo, and from there to Hong Kong. On 20th May, he was in Hong Kong.

Chapter 26:Permanent Record | Hong Kong

When Ed reaches Hong Kong, he stays in Hotel Mira. He gets in touch with Laura and Glenn and requests them to come to Hong Kong as discussed earlier. After a long wait, they arrived on 2nd June. In the meantime, Ed did not step out of the hotel, in the fear that his room may get bugged in his absence. He also prepared a summary of how he will present his points to the journalist in a non-technical manner. As they arrive, Ed gets the first-hand experience of handling the journalist. He is on the screen as they record all his conversations and disclosures.

On 5th June, The Guardian goes on with the first disclosure of FISA court authorizing NSA to collect information from telecom giant Verizon about every phone in their portfolio. 6th June, PRISM story is run on the Guardian and the Washington Post. These disclosures create unrest in the IC community as Ed is also not answering his emails asking for updates and status.

In the meantime, Laura was taking the recordings of which she would make a featured documentary CitizenFour.

Ed was not clear about what’s next? He was not sure if the Hong Kong Government would support him. Finally, on 14th June, Ed was charged with espionage act. On 21st June, the US government placed a request through the UN to extradite him. The media was all over the place. Now he exited the Hotel Mira with the help of the local activist, who gave him shelter and all the care in time of need. All the thoughts that if he would return to the US what would be his treatment, was haunting him. He would be sentenced to at least 10 years imprisonment per document, along with all the humiliation for him and his family. None of his justifications would be heard which he intended to do for the betterment of society as the law itself will not allow that.

It is time to move on to a new place. Ed destroys all the digital assets by losing the encryption key, and now has just a few clothes which will accompany him to the new destination.

Chapter 27:Permanent Record | Moscow

As the US had requested ED’s extradition from the UN, he was increasingly scared that he would be renditioned (Unlawful Extradition or kidnapped) on one of the planes which the US has contracted everywhere. He gets sympathetic messages from various countries from Iceland to India, but none of them could help.

Finally, Sarah Harrison, former editor of Wikileaks comes to the rescue. She lands in Hong Kong and gets into action with the help of the legal community in Hong Kong. She met the human rights attorney and arranged for a Laissez-Passer for Ed. This the UN approved pass permit for someone in problem with their Government and he will be allowed to pass through the country. After a lot of thinking and making sure they were not in any US-friendly country’s airspace, Sarah decides to take Ed to Quito, Ecuador, (Moscow → Havana → Caracas → Quito) as they would not be supporting the US in Ed’s extradition.

1st time, when Sarah meets Ed, she was ready to get him in the van to the airport. She had not slept since she landed in Hong Kong and got the UN travel pass. Ed was thankful for all her effort and support.

When they land in Sheremetyevo, Russia airport (One of the busiest airports of Russia and in the vicinity of Moscow City), the border authorities detain Ed and take him for discussion. Sarah accompanies him. These are the FSB officers (Same as the FBI). They offer him help and in return ask if he could be their part. Ed respectfully refuses as this would be getting into one more problem. They were also recording the discussion, and if they give the recording to the world, then it would put the US to more shame. As the discussion proceeded, the Russians informed him that he could not move ahead, as his passport is invalid now, as the US government has canceled it.

For the next few days, Ed is stuck in the airport (like The Terminal Movie). He asks for political asylum from 27 countries, but none of them works out due to some of the other reasons.

Ed tries to on-board Bolivian President’s plane who had come to attend the annual GECF (Gas Exporting Countries Forum) seminar, later to find out that the plane was grounded in Vienna while it was flying over Europe for searching. He made the right decision not to on-board it. Russia objected to this act of NATO, as it violated Russian sovereignty.

Finally, on 1st August, Russia decides to give him political asylum and get free of all the nuisance at the airport.

Ed thanks Sarah as they part ways. Ed remains thankful to Sarah all his life for all the help and support in his tough times.

Chapter 29:Permanent Record | Love and Exile

Ed states that while you have read this book (and this summary), and out of curiosity googled the specific terms in the book (and this summary), CONGRATS!! You are in the system now. By this time, all your devices, microphones, digital cameras must have been hacked and the stream going to some NSA server. Your life is an open book now.

Got scared?? Do not worry too much. After 2016, maximum internet traffic is on SSL, so no one can sniff the content while you browse it. Apple and Google have encrypted their phones, services while they are in the cloud. Apple even went ahead against the FBI for breaking its encryption and succeeded to a certain extent.

In 2015, US Congress passed the USA Freedom Act which amends Section 215to prohibit bulk collection of American people's phone records. ACLU vs Clapper, ACLU won big time.

Further, Ed heads the FPF ( Freedom of the press foundation) to preserve and strengthen the 1st and the 4th amendment rights of the constitution. Further FPF creates an Open Whisper System and Securedrop for the whistleblowers to share documents anonymously.

Ed further states that it is important that you keep your phones encrypted as you never know who may want to hack into it. Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone was tried to be hacked by the IC community there.

The EU passed the GDPR bill in 2016, where it enforces strict laws and states that the data is the property of an individual and not the business in the EU, while it is the reverse in the US.

Ed suggests that even though we have done a lot of encryption, still our data will be living beyond us. We need to keep it in a way that does not impact our coming generations in the wrong way. Even though all the privacy protections are in place, the data further efforts to evaluate us (Cibil Score in India, Credit Score in the US) and influence us, by giving us the suggestion on what to buy, on the basis of our browsing history, buying history and our likes and dislikes. We need to be careful there.

What does Ed do in exile? He lives a normal life in his 2 bedroom apartment. He does not use credit cards, keeps on changing his appearance so that people do not recognize him easily, enjoys the local tourist spots, and refrains from naming himself anywhere. They attend shows and concerts (after shunning the fear of being followed and targeted).

For work, he gives lectures to students, lawmakers, and technologists worldwide; takes board meetings of FPF at the European Center for constitutional and human rights.

He enjoys time with Lindsay who he says is more fun-loving than him. They married and are living a normal life after Ed’s local attorney ( Anatoly Kucherena) helped them with the asylum in the country.

Further in acknowledgment he thanks many people who helped him at different stages, and is happy with his life in Moscow.

Originally published at on July 4, 2020. The amazon links intend to give commission to the author of the article on sale through them.



Piyush Jain

Piyush, a software professional, reads anything on AI, behavioural economics, strategy, macroeconomics, history, or anything good.