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The famous whistleblower of the American global surveillance system, Edward Snowden, wrote an autobiography. His book had already become a bestseller, and the US government filed a new lawsuit against him and tried to strip his fee. We have studied this sensational book and will tell you what is interesting to find in it. The emphasis, of course, will be on the technical details and secrets of American intelligence, but we will also talk about the life of the author hiding from the whole world.
Edward Snowden was born on June 21, 1983. But he begins the story about himself not with his first breath, but with his first hack – which he gracefully calls his first act of active protest.
He was six years old, and he had long been protesting against the regime – or rather, against the regime of the day. It seemed to him that his parents put him to bed too early. The civil dialogue did not work – the authorities were deaf to his calls. And then on his birthday, he secretly rearranged all the clocks in the house a few hours ago. His intervention remained unnoticed by the authorities, and on that day he first managed to see the sunset on the summer solstice. Tired of rejoicing, he fell asleep on the floor – and when he woke up, his father had already set the exact time on the clock.
This episode from the personal life of Snowden not only begins the story, but also serves as an occasion in the book to speculate about the Internet device, about how the world has changed with its appearance (no one else manually sets the clock, everyone uses NTP protocol on their devices), – and thanks to the smoothness of these transitions of thought, it becomes clear that Snowden had a co-author who helped him a lot.
The professional writer Joshua Cohen, whom critics compare with Philip Roth and Thomas Pincheon, clearly worked hard to turn Snowden's life story into a literary narrative accessible to a wide audience. This approach has its pros and cons. Pros – the book came out lively and exciting. Cons – sometimes it may seem that some details pop up in order to emphasize a topic – or give an occasion to give an ignorant reader a small lecture on how technology affects his straightforward life.
Who is Joshua Cohen
Co-author of the book, Joshua Cohen, was born into a family of American Jews. He has been published in many prestigious magazines. Among his books are the postmodern phantasmagoria on the theme of Jewish history and Witz identity (one of the meanings of the name is a reference to the Auschwitz concentration camp), as well as the “Book of Numbers” – a 2015 metaromaniac about the writer Joshua Cohen, who received an order to write his autobiography for the technology billionaire. The billionaire, of course, is also Joshua Cohen.
It was while working on the “Book of Numbers” that the writer became interested in issues of technology penetration into society and the role of special services in this. In the same 2015, he wrote the PCKWCK novel – a variation on the theme of Dickens’s novel “Death Notes of the Pickwick Club,” instead of English gentlemen traveling the world and creating game in it, hired sub-contractors of the American government from PCKWCK.
By the way, PCKWCK was written in real time – through broadcast in Periscope – and was published along with the comments of those watching. In general, the co-author’s choice for Snowden’s book could have been worse. Even taking into account the fact that Cohen's literary style bears an indelible imprint of his work on magazines of the “intellectual gloss” category.
To stand, I have to keep my roots
Edward Snowden's childhood passed in two small towns on the east coast of America – Elizabeth City in North Carolina and Fort Mead, Maryland. However, these places are not just another remote place unknown to anyone, like the city of Hopkins from the series "Very Strange Things". We’ll also tell you about Fort Mead, and Elizabeth City has the largest US coast guard base in the country. In which Snowden’s maternal grandfather rose to the rank of rear admiral, and his father was an officer. By the way, both are in engineering. His mother worked as a clerk in various government offices.
In general, the Snowden family has a glorious past and a long history of faithful service to their homeland. Here, the norm is a good education and a decent salary. All these details about the family are designed to make it clear to the reader that since childhood, Snowden grew up with the desire to serve his country in good faith. He loves America and is proud of his history – in particular, the history of the struggle for freedom. This topic pops up in the book many times – probably for the American reader this is really necessary, because many consider Snowden a traitor there. So he has to answer – no, they say, not a traitor, but a patriot. Yes, and hereditary.
Games teach life
Snowden's father, a military engineer, often brought all sorts of interesting things from work. Either a chronometer or a scientific calculator – and all of them aroused a lot of interest in little Edward. But one day my father brought home a whole Commodore 64 computer. He brought it in the evening, when Edward was already laid to sleep. Which, of course, did not stop him from conducting a reconnaissance operation and seeing how his father connects the mysterious device to the TV and does something on it – and the picture on the TV screen responds to his actions!
It was then that Edward realized what he really wanted to do in life.
And then he realized that his father was playing games on this machine – in Tetris, Arcanoid and the Choplifter helicopter simulator! The latter caused unbridled delight in Edward, and his father finally found out that he was being watched – and, of course, put his son next to him and gave him a second joystick. Unconnected, however, but that was enough for Edward.
The following Christmas, Edward was presented with NES, and the child fell out of the world. The prefix gave him many valuable life lessons: The Legend of Zelda taught him that the world exists to be explored, Mega Man – that the enemies have something to learn, and Duck Hunt – that sometimes they laugh at you, but this does not mean that in laughing should shoot. And the most valuable lesson was taught to him by the Mario brothers – and the essence of the lesson was that you can only go forward in life, but it is impossible to return to the past.
And so that young Edward finally learned that everything in life flows and sometimes leaks, after some time the prefix broke.
Taking an example from his father, Edward decided to fix it. It was enough to disassemble it and assemble it – but this did not help the matter. A father was called to help, who explained to him that there was something in the prefix, suggested that something had decomposed in it, and took Edward to his work to use the equipment there to fix the prefix. Well, and to impress his son – apparently, his father considered his interest in electronics quite serious.
There, Edward first sat down at the keyboard and under his father's leadership wrote the first program in his life – and not even Hello World!
10 INPUT "WHAT IS YOUR NAME?"; NAME$20 PRINT "HELLO, " + NAME$ + "!"
And when the program started, asked “What is your name?” And said “HELLO, EDDY!”, Edward Snowden felt enlightened. He realized that if you give the computer instructions correctly, it will execute it – even if the programmer is seven years old. Machine justice subdued Edward. Predictability, rationality and control – only the computer keyboard can be found, he realized.
Well, this lesson really helped Edward: by the age of nine, his life had changed a lot.
Freedom of thought and freedom of action
Snowden's parents moved. Now they worked at Fort Meade, and lived in Crofton. Both places are not quite cities. The first is a cluster of government agency headquarters, the second is neat “sleeping towns” with white fences nearby. And almost everyone who lives there works for the government for very decent salaries.
At Edward’s new school, things didn’t go quite smoothly – but after the move, his parents bought a Compaq Presario 425 desktop computer. It had an Intel 486 25 MHz processor, a 200 MB hard drive, a video adapter with 256 colors and a modem that could already be used go online. It also featured the legendary Loom game – in its plot, the secret society of Weavers constructs a magic spinning wheel that weaves thin patterns into the fabric of reality, and the young hero who discovered the secret of the spinning wheel is forced to hide in exile (I warned that some literary tricks in this book are quite straightforward).
Snowden does not spare good words and bright colors to describe the Internet in the early nineties. There, he said, there was a sea of information, freedom and a healthy mixture of sincere desire to help each other with the spirit of competition, show off and provocation. And everyone, they say, was welcomed there, even a child, and if they weren’t where, it’s enough to change the pseudonym and slightly change opinions and writing style to try again. What Snowden, according to him, has repeatedly used – his main interests in his teens were disputes on the Internet, the game Ultima Online, as well as reading everything that came to hand, especially about computer-related topics.
By adolescence, this interest focused on issues of systemic security and its overcoming. As Snowden wittily remarks, adolescents are almost all hackers by nature – life itself makes them. They themselves feel like adults, but adults consider them children. And perforce, one has to learn to break into a system of supervision and rules. After all, wherever there are rules, written or unwritten, if you study them carefully, you can find the difference between how the creators of the system wanted it to work and how it really works. So in fact, according to Snowden, hackers do not break the rules, but expose and refute them.
On the example of his school years, Snowden discusses the system of power and social policy. People who set the rules can say as much as they like that they do it in your interests, but in practice it very often turns out that the rules they establish support their interests and can be reviewed at any time. Back in school, it occurred to him that many systems have the same fundamental flaw: those who create the rules have no reason to change them, because it is not beneficial for them – even if it is beneficial to all other users of the system.
Not wanting to put up with this state of things, realizing that, following the rules, it is impossible to change the system, Edward Snowden, like all teenagers, turned to resistance by the age of thirteen. He was not a "tough guy" enough to rebel in the usual teenage manner – through vandalism and drugs. I had to learn how to cheat the system.
Absenteeism was fraught with the loss of a computer. But, having carefully studied the grading system, Edward realized that the biggest contribution to the annual grades was made by different types of verification work. He had no problems with them – and that means that he could simply not take his homework! For a while, it worked – until the teacher thought of asking what was the matter. Edward could not resist and boasted of his discovery. This led to the introduction of a quota for the minimum number of assignments and a tedious conversation with the teacher about what you need to think about your future, work hard and try to work for your personal business, portfolio, resume … in a word, your permanent record.
Nevertheless, breaking into the school system, Edward got enough free time to plunge headlong into breaking into computer systems. His teachers were hacker zines 2600 and Phrack – with all the attached anti-authoritarian counterculture. According to Snowden, these were times of freedom and boundless curiosity – when many hackers were not hacking for money, but for the glory and enjoyment of the process itself and its steepness. In the same way, Snowden himself was mainly interested in hacking games and phreaking, but I didn’t even think about bank accounts and credit cards. He was interested in the fundamental issues of security and system architecture. And the more he studied, the more he realized how many holes there were in different systems around, which, in theory, should be reliable and protected.
A case in point is the Los Alamos National Nuclear Research Laboratory. Out of curiosity, Snowden went to her site and likewise out of curiosity discovered that the site had an open folder structure. That is, a link of the form
website.com/files it was possible to access all the files on the server. Even those to which visitors should not have access. Such were the times.
Having read plenty of internal correspondence and personal data of laboratory staff, Edward Snowden did as his parents taught. He did a good deed and wrote to the webmaster of the site.
There was no reaction to his letter. Days passed, there was no answer, the hole remained open.
Edward did not calm down. He called the laboratory, got him connected to the IT department, and carefully described the problem to the answering machine.
A few weeks later, a telephone rang in their house. Snowden's mother picked up the phone. Hearing where they were calling from, she turned pale and in a terrible whisper asked Edward what he had done. Pitying the nerves of his mother, Snowden, in a telephone conversation, once again retold what was the matter. The laboratory employee thanked him for his vigilance, said that the hole was covered, and asked if his interlocutor was looking for work. Upon learning of his age, however, he said that he still had to wait until he came of age – but he did not cancel his proposal.
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