BOOK REVIEW: Permanent Record by Edward Snowden

Metropolitan Books, New York. Hard cover, 329 pp, US$30

BOOK REVIEW: Permanent Record by Edward Snowden

There is a breathtaking point in this book when the then-29-year-old Edward Snowden, a systems engineer contracted to the United States National Security Agency, sits down in front of his computer in Fort Meade, Maryland, and keys in an NSA program called XKEYSCORE and begins to make his way through a shared targeting folder holding the history of an engineer in Indonesia, an academic who had for reasons that were unclear had attracted the attention of the astonishing capabilities of the US surveillance network 16,329 km away.

There, on Snowden’s computer screen, was the engineer in real-time, with a toddler in diapers on his lap, trying to read his screen. As Snowden watched, the father attempted to hold his squirming child tighter as he sought to read something on the screen. “Suddenly the boy straightened up and, with his dark crescent eyes, looked directly into the computer’s camera – I couldn’t escape the feeling that he was looking directly at me. Suddenly I realized I had been holding my breath. I shut the session, got up from the computer, and left the office for the bathroom in the hall, head down, headphones still on with the cord trailing.”

By this time Snowden, who had made a successful pathway up through the ranks of the CIA and then the NSA realized that the capabilities of XKEYSCORE gave him and other top spies at the NSA the ability to look into the eyes of almost everybody who ever sat in front of a computer screen, or used a smartphone, anywhere on earth, including in his own country. Other programs, including PRISM, enabled the NSA to routinely collect data from Microsoft, Yahoo!, Google, Facebook Paltalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL and Apple including email, photos, video and audio chats, web-browsing content, search engine queries, and all other data stored on their clouds, transforming the companies into witting conspirators.”

Upstream collection, meanwhile, was arguably even more invasive. It enabled the routine capture of data directly from private-sector Internet infrastructure -- the switches, and routers that shunt Internet traffic worldwide, via the satellites in orbit and the high capacity fiber-optic cables that run under the ocean.

This is a war that, as Snowden writes, began with the falling World Trade Towers on September 11, 2001. The fall of the towers and the attack on the Pentagon took about 3,000 lives. The response by George W Bush, which has continued over two more presidencies and 19 years, has taken roughly a million lives across the globe, blighted American society, and resulted in the building of this electronic surveillance juggernaut. And Barack Obama, he of the Harvard degree in constitutional law, didn’t slow it down whatsoever.

Thus it is possible to collect data from places you never thought of – from your smart refrigerator, your smartphone, your smart jewelry such as rings, wristbands, watches and pins, your FitBit, your Garmin Forerunner 735XT, the EKG in your doctor’s office. These all give off electronic tags, metadata that can be assembled by snooping government officials.

In short, the US government had the capability to know every single thing about you – what you eat, who your friends are, how much you exercise, how much porn you watch, and watch you while you watch it. And it had the capability, while you were sitting there—as I am now, typing this review into this laptop – to look you in the eye through your camera.

This is the story of how Edward Snowden grew from a typical computer nerd into arguably the world’s most wanted human being. His story, of how he compiled massive amounts of material, stole it by hiding it in microdots on a Rubik’s Cube and got it out, has been told across the world – of his escape through Hong Kong, where he passed on his information to reporters, and how he is now stranded in Moscow. He is unable to go in any direction without being arrested. In one infamous case, the US in 2013 forced down the plane of the Bolivian President Evo Morales as it left Russia from a conference on the belief Sowden might be on it.

The minute detail of how the US goes about collecting all of this information on you and me, and what it does with it, and how easy it is to look at that engineer and his child in Indonesia is frightening and it is laid out in this book. As Snowden writes, if you are reading this review online, it is possible that someone, in a gigantic structure under a pineapple field in Hawaii, or other facilities elsewhere, can follow you as you read, can, in fact, watch you read.

Supposedly, as a result of Snowden’s revelations, laws were passed in the US Congress to prevent this kind of surveillance on American citizens. Google and Facebook are said to have taken a series of steps to protect and encrypt user data. Apple has publicly refused to cooperate with federal authorities over the decryption of the phones of people involved in terrorist attacks. The NSA has been forced to end the bulk collection of the phone records of Americans.

But similar laws were passed in the wake of similar revelations in the past, and the CIA, the NSA, and a long list of other agencies figured out ways around those laws to continue surveillance. It is hard to believe they aren’t continuing to do it. For instance, back in 2013, the NSA began to build a gigantic data facility in Bluffdale, Utah, out there where nobody ever goes and looks around north of Salt Lake City, where the natives in any case largely worship the government and don’t ask many questions.

That facility  was projected to contain four 25,000 square-foot halls filled with servers that, as Snowden writes, “could hold an immense amount of data, basically a rolling history of the entire planet’s pattern of life, insofar as life can be understood through the connections of payments to people, people to phones, phones to calls, calls to networks, and the synoptic array of Internet activity moving along those networks’ lines.”

You’d think the exposure of the vast, systematic surveillance of every human being on earth with a connection to the internet would have put a stop to that facility. It didn’t. it was completed a year ago in May 2019, at a cost of US$1.9 billion.  It is known as the “Intelligence Community Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative Data Center” and is designed to store data estimated to be on the order of exabytes or larger. One exabyte is one quintillion bytes, or 1,000 petabytes, which equals 1 million terabytes, which equals 1 billion gigabytes. What do you think the National Security Agency is going to be doing with all that capacity? You think Snowden stopped anything?

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States is one of the most important of the Bill of Rights, the most important document ever written for the protection of human rights. It 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.”

This is a very human book, the tale of how his life was transformed by what he knew, an intense book about Snowden’s family, his upbringing, and his principles that eventually got him to set out to attempt to wreck this giant system. Despite the human side of the book, the extent to which the 4th Amendment has been violated is everything the book is about.

As he writes, “America’s fundamental laws exist to make the job of law enforcement not easier but harder. This isn’t a bug, it is a core feature of democracy. In the American system, law enforcement is expected to protect citizens from one another. In turn, the courts are expected to restrain that power when it is abused, and to provide redresses against the only members of society with the authority to detain, arrest, and use force – including lethal force. Among the most important of these restraints are the prohibitions against law enforcement surveilling private citizens on their property and taking possessions of their private recordings without warrants.”

The extent to which the 4th Amendment is violated is breathtaking.  While that amendment is theoretically a protection for American citizens, the natural laws of human rights should extend it to everyone on the globe. Nonetheless, it is hard to believe Snowden, as events push him further into obscurity, can have had much of an impact. 

It is unfortunate. If this were a just world, based on what Snowden laid bare, the Presidential Medal of Freedom that Donald Trump awarded to the arch-conservative bigot Rush Limbaugh would be stripped from his fat neck and awarded to Edward Snowden, and Snowden would be brought back to the United States to a hero’s welcome.

Source : Asia Sentinel More   

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Cambodian Police to Ease Crackdown on Traffic Law Violators Amid Coronavirus

New law requiring vehicles to have license plates led to traffic fine bonanza.

Cambodian Police to Ease Crackdown on Traffic Law Violators Amid Coronavirus

The Cambodian National Police Commission said Friday it would ease a crackdown on traffic violations after a public uproar about arbitrary and excessive fines at a time when the population is struggling economically during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A new traffic law allows police to fine the driver of any noncommercial vehicle without license plates U.S. $300. Those driving unlicensed commercial vehicles can be fined $600, more than the monthly wage of many drivers.

It has been relatively common in Cambodia for drivers to purchase and use vehicles without registering them and acquiring plates, especially motorcycles and other small vehicles.

Under the relaxation announced Friday, police in Phnom Penh will not levy fines against vehicles without license plates if drivers can prove they are in the process of applying for tags, the commission said.

The move was welcomed by motorists and the drivers of the locally popular three-wheeled motor taxi called the Pass App, whose drivers were being hit with fines.

Police have been arbitrarily fining people, especially those who drive their cars without plates, a Pass App driver named Sok Heng told RFA’s Khmer Service.

He said that it takes about a week to get license plates, but the police never give motorists enough time.

The Pass App driver said he wished authorities would not require motor taxi drivers like him to have licenses during for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic because many of the drivers are afraid to provide their services because they might get caught.

“I don’t have a taxi license,” said Sok Heng.

“How can I get one? I’m illiterate. How can I learn the regulations [to pass the test]? I can’t,” he said.

The police decision to ease up on fines was welcomed by Vorn Pov, the president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA).

He argued though, that the police should also stop fining drivers of vehicles without plates until Phnom Penh’s public works department is able to manufacture license plates fast enough to meet demand that has surged since the new law came into effect.

“The police should consult with the Ministry of Public Works on issuing license plates and increase the number of locations where customers can go to apply for driver’s licenses so that motorists can comply with the law,” he said.

Vorn Pov said that motor taxi drivers for pass app and other companies are having a difficult time acquiring driver’s licenses because they are illiterate and application costs are high. He called on the police to resolve these issues, as taxi drivers and pass app drivers are low-risk for traffic accidents.

“They don’t drive fast. They drive on community roads so I think they should be given a break,” he said.

According to police reports, on Friday, more than 1,300 motorists were fined in Phnom Penh.

Common offenses included driving without a helmet, driving without a seat belt, speeding, no license plates, and too many riders on motorcycles.

Since the beginning of May, motorists in the city were fined 16,000 times. More than the coronavirus, excessive fines is why Phnom Penh roads are empty these days, a resident of the city, Phun Kuychheang, told RFA.

“Those of us who drive motorcycles are all afraid to go out,” he said, adding, “We’re afraid of the heavy fines.”

“Right now there is no traffic congestion because we are afraid the police will fine us,” he said.

RFA attempted to contact National Police spokesman Chhay Kim Khouen for comment but were unable to reach him, but he told local media that the crackdown on traffic violations went smoothly. He said the heavy fines were successful in making people realize they need to comply with traffic laws.

Kong Ratanak, a road safety official, said that the heavy fines have definitely made the roads safer, but that the excessive crackdown on traffic violations was inappropriate right now because of the ongoing pandemic.

“The fines have forced people to change their behavior, and we want them to continue to [drive safely],” he said, but argued that the authorities should listen to the will of the people and choose to implement the law only after the crisis has passed.

The police have arrested three people on charges that they disseminated disinformation about the vehicle crackdown. The three were set free after they were asked to make public videos apologizing to police for wrongfully criticizing them.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

Source : Radio Free Asia More   

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