John Naughton: Permanent Record by Edward Snowden review – gripping spy story

The NSA whistleblower’s account of his life and actions against the US security services is a page-turner

The work “hack” used to be a term of approbation among geeks, as a means of describing an elegant way of circumventing a difficulty that had defeated lesser minds. In the old days, a good hacker was someone constantly on the lookout for better ways of writing code and there’s a sense in which the young Edward Snowden was one of those. At high school, he resented the way homework absorbed valuable time that he would have preferred to spend at a computer. So he analysed the marking system and realised that it could be “hacked”: if he just did the quizzes, he could get enough points to get by. He stopped turning in homework until one day his maths teacher questioned him and discovered his methods. “Pretty clever, Eddie,” he said, “but you should be using that brain of yours not to figure out how to avoid work, but to do the best work you can. You have to start thinking about your permanent record.”

Well, eventually Snowden did, and this fascinating autobiography is the result. It tells the story of how an intense, bright, serious boy from a patriotic, quasi-military family (father in the coast guard, mother working as a clerk at the National Security Agency) came to tell the world how his beloved country’s intelligence services had covertly pivoted from protection to mass surveillance in the name of national security. And in the process did us a great service.

Instead of being in the business of targeted surveillance, the NSA had moved into the business of mass surveillance

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