Snowden in the Labyrinth

Permanent Record

by Edward Snowden
Metropolitan, 339 pp., $30.00

1. A Moment of Vision

In Robert Sheckley’s 1978 short story “Is That What People Do?,” a man named Eddie Quintero buys himself a pair of binoculars from an army and navy surplus outlet, “because with them he hoped to see some things that he otherwise would never see. Specifically, he hoped to see girls undressing at the Chauvin Arms across the street from his furnished room”—but he was also “looking for that moment of vision, of total attention.” Since this is a science fiction story, Quintero accidentally ends up with a pair marked “Experimental. Not to Be Removed from the Testing Room.”

Edward Snowden; illustration by Joanna Neborsky
Edward Snowden; illustration by Joanna Neborsky

The binoculars turn out to have a fabulous capacity not only for seeing through walls but also for diminishing the distance between Quintero and those he would spy on. When he peers through the experimental device just so—an effort of contorting his body into increasingly bizarre positions—Quintero is suddenly granted visions of other human beings, behind closed doors, doing “what people do.” Which turns out to be, well, weird shit. The least disturbing of what Quintero surveils is what’s now called cosplay; the most extreme consists of giddy ritual murder, and of the deliberate calling-forth of a Satanic, sexually violent “smoke-demon.” On the last page, Sheckley’s parable attains an existentialist clarity: the binoculars grant a vision of a shabby, middle-aged man in a dreary room, standing on his head, with a pair of binoculars awkwardly wedged against his face. Quintero recognizes himself:

He realized that he was only another performer in humanity’s great circus, and he had just done one of his acts, just like the others. But who was watching? Who was the real observer?

He turned the binoculars around and looked through the object-lenses. He saw a pair of eyes, and he thought they were his own—until one of them slowly winked at him.

Edward Snowden, late in the pages of his memoir, Permanent Record, describes his sensation at being personally introduced to XKEYSCORE, the NSA’s ultimate tool of intimate, individual electronic surveillance. Among the NSA’s technological tools (some of which Snowden aided in perfecting), XKEYSCORE was, according to Snowden, “the most invasive…if only because [the NSA agents are] closest to the user—that is, the closest to the person being surveilled.” For nearly three hundred pages, the memoir has built to this scene, foreshadowed in the preface, in which the whistleblower-in-the-making sees behind the curtain:

I sat at a terminal from which I had practically unlimited access to the communications of nearly every man, woman, and child on earth who’d ever dialed a phone or touched a computer. Among those people were about 320 million of my fellow American citizens, who in the regular conduct of their everyday lives were being surveilled in gross contravention of not just the Constitution of the…


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