Authors: Edward Snowden
To give an account of my life while protecting the privacy of my loved ones and not exposing legitimate government secrets is no simple task, but it is my task. Between those two responsibilities—that is where to find me.
The first thing I ever hacked was bedtime.
It felt unfair, being forced by my parents to go to sleep—before they went to sleep, before my sister went to sleep, when I wasn’t even tired. Life’s first little injustice.
Many of the first 2,000 or so nights of my life ended in civil disobedience: crying, begging, bargaining, until—on night 2,193, the night I turned six years old—I discovered direct action. The authorities weren’t interested in calls for reform, and I wasn’t born yesterday. I had just had one of the best days of my young life, complete with friends, a party, and even gifts, and I wasn’t about to let it end just because everyone else had to go home. So I went about covertly resetting all the clocks in the house by several hours. The microwave’s clock was easier than the stove’s to roll back, if only because it was easier to reach.
When the authorities—in their unlimited ignorance—failed to notice, I was mad with power, galloping laps around the living room. I, the master of time, would never again be sent to bed. I was free. And so it was that I fell asleep on the floor, having finally
seen the sunset on June 21, the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. When I awoke, the clocks in the house once again matched my father’s watch.
F ANYBODY BOTHERED
to set a watch today, how would they know what to set it to? If you’re like most people these days, you’d set it to the time on your smartphone. But if you look at your phone, and I mean really look at it, burrowing deep through its menus into its settings, you’ll eventually see that the phone’s time is “automatically set.” Every so often, your phone quietly—silently—asks your service provider’s network, “Hey, do you have the time?” That network, in turn, asks a bigger network, which asks an even bigger network, and so on through a great succession of towers and wires until the request reaches one of the true masters of time, a Network Time Server run by or referenced against the atomic clocks kept at places like the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the United States, the Federal Institute of Meteorology and Climatology in Switzerland, and the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology in Japan. That long invisible journey, accomplished in a fraction of a second, is why you don’t see a blinking
on your phone’s screen every time you power it up again after its battery runs out.
I was born in 1983, at the end of the world in which people set the time for themselves. That was the year that the US Department of Defense split its internal system of interconnected computers in half, creating one network for the use of the defense establishment, called MILNET, and another network for the public, called the Internet. Before the year was out, new rules defined the boundaries of this virtual space, giving rise to the Domain Name System that we still use today—the.govs, .mils,.edus, and, of course,.coms—and the country codes assigned to the rest of the world:.uk, .de, .fr, .cn, .ru, and so on. Already, my country (and so I) had an advantage, an edge. And yet it would be another six
years before the World Wide Web was invented, and about nine years before my family got a computer with a modem that could connect to it.
Of course, the Internet is not a single entity, although we tend to refer to it as if it were. The technical reality is that there are new networks born every day on the global cluster of interconnected communications networks that you—and about three billion other people, or roughly 42 percent of the world’s population—use regularly. Still, I’m going to use the term in its broadest sense, to mean the universal network of networks connecting the majority of the world’s computers to one another via a set of shared protocols.
Some of you may worry that you don’t know a protocol from a hole in the wall, but all of us have made use of many. Think of protocols as languages for machines, the common rules they follow to be understood by one another. If you’re around my age, you might remember having to type the “http” at the beginning of a website’s address into the address bar of your Web browser. This refers to the Hypertext Transfer Protocol, the language you use to access the World Wide Web, that massive collection of mostly text-based but also audio- and video-capable sites like Google and YouTube and Facebook. Every time you check your email, you use a language like IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol), SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol), or POP3 (Post Office Protocol). File transfers pass through the Internet using FTP (File Transfer Protocol). And as for the time-setting procedure on your phone that I mentioned, those updates get fetched through NTP (Network Time Protocol).
All these protocols are known as application protocols, and comprise just one family of protocols among the myriad online. For example, in order for the data in any of these application protocols to cross the Internet and be delivered to your desktop, or laptop, or phone, it first has to be packaged up inside a dedicated transport protocol—think of how the regular snail-mail
postal service prefers you to send your letters and parcels in their standard-size envelopes and boxes. TCP (Transmission Control Protocol) is used to route, among other applications, Web pages and email. UDP (User Datagram Protocol) is used to route more time-sensitive, real-time applications, such as Internet telephony and live broadcasts.
Any recounting of the multilayered workings of what in my childhood was called cyberspace, the Net, the Infobahn, and the Information Superhighway is bound to be incomplete, but the takeaway is this: these protocols have given us the means to digitize and put online damn near everything in the world that we don’t eat, drink, wear, or dwell in. The Internet has become almost as integral to our lives as the air through which so many of its communications travel. And, as we’ve all been reminded—every time our social media feeds alert us to a post that tags us in a compromising light—to digitize something is to record it, in a format that will last forever.
Here’s what strikes me when I think back to my childhood, particularly those first nine Internet-less years: I can’t account for everything that happened back then, because I have only my memory to rely on. The data just doesn’t exist. When I was a child, “the unforgettable experience” was not yet a threateningly literal technological description, but a passionate metaphorical prescription of significance: my first words, my first steps, my first lost tooth, my first time riding a bicycle.
My generation was the last in American and perhaps even in world history for which this is true—the last undigitized generation, whose childhoods aren’t up on the cloud but are mostly trapped in analog formats like handwritten diaries and Polaroids and VHS cassettes, tangible and imperfect artifacts that degrade with age and can be lost irretrievably. My schoolwork was done on paper with pencils and erasers, not on networked tablets that logged my keystrokes. My growth spurts weren’t tracked by smart-home technologies, but notched with a knife into the wood of the door frame of the house in which I grew up.
E LIVED IN
a grand old redbrick house on a little patch of lawn shaded by dogwood trees and strewn in summer with white magnolia flowers that served as cover for the plastic army men I used to crawl around with. The house had an atypical layout: its main entrance was on the second floor, accessed by a massive brick staircase. This floor was the primary living space, with the kitchen, dining room, and bedrooms.
Above this main floor was a dusty, cobwebbed, and forbidden attic given over to storage, haunted by what my mother promised me were squirrels, but what my father insisted were vampire werewolves that would devour any child foolish enough to venture up there. Below the main floor was a more or less finished basement—a rarity in North Carolina, especially so close to the coast. Basements tend to flood, and ours, certainly, was perennially damp, despite the constant workings of the dehumidifier and sump pump.
At the time my family moved in, the back of the main floor was extended and divided up into a laundry room, a bathroom, my bedroom, and a den outfitted with a TV and a couch. From my bedroom, I had a view of the den through the window set into what had originally been the exterior wall of the house. This window, which once looked outside, now looked inside.
For nearly all the years that my family spent in that house in Elizabeth City, this bedroom was mine, and its window was, too. Though the window had a curtain, it didn’t provide much, if any, privacy. From as far back as I can remember, my favorite activity was to tug the curtain aside and peek through the window into the den. Which is to say, from as far back as I can remember, my favorite activity was spying.
I spied on my older sister, Jessica, who was allowed to stay up later than I was and watch the cartoons that I was still too young for. I spied on my mother, Wendy, who’d sit on the couch to fold the laundry while watching the nightly news. But the person
I spied on the most was my father, Lon—or, as he was called in the Southern style, Lonnie—who’d commandeer the den into the wee hours.
My father was in the Coast Guard, though at the time I didn’t have the slightest clue what that meant. I knew that sometimes he wore a uniform and sometimes he didn’t. He left home early and came home late, often with new gadgets—a Texas Instruments TI-30 scientific calculator, a Casio stopwatch on a lanyard, a single speaker for a home stereo system—some of which he’d show me, and some of which he’d hide. You can imagine which I was more interested in.
The gadget I was most interested in arrived one night, just after bedtime. I was in bed and about to drift off, when I heard my father’s footsteps coming down the hall. I stood up on my bed, tugged aside the curtain, and watched. He was holding a mysterious box, close in size to a shoe box, and he removed from it a beige object that looked like a cinder block, from which long black cables snaked like the tentacles of some deep-sea monster out of one of my nightmares.
Working slowly and methodically—which was partially his disciplined, engineer’s way of doing everything, and partially an attempt to stay quiet—my father untangled the cables and stretched one across the shag carpet from the back of the box to the back of the TV. Then he plugged the other cable into a wall outlet behind the couch.
Suddenly the TV lit up, and with it my father’s face lit up, too. Normally he would just spend his evenings sitting on the couch, cracking Sun Drop sodas and watching the people on TV run around a field, but this was different. It took me only a moment to come to the most amazing realization of my whole entire, though admittedly short, life:
my father was controlling what was happening on TV
I had come face-to-face with a Commodore 64—one of the first home computer systems on the market.
I had no idea what a computer was, of course, let alone whether
what my father was doing on it was playing a game or working. Although he was smiling and seemed to be having fun, he was also applying himself to what was happening on-screen with the same intensity with which he applied himself to every mechanical task around the house. I knew only one thing: whatever he was doing, I wanted to do it, too.
After that, whenever my father came into the den to break out the beige brick, I’d stand up on my bed, tug away the curtain, and spy on his adventures. One night the screen showed a falling ball and a bar at the bottom; my father had to move the bar horizontally to hit the ball, bounce it up, and knock down a wall of multicolored bricks (
). On another night, he sat before a screen of multicolored bricks in different shapes; they were always falling, and as they fell he moved and rotated them to assemble them into perfect rows, which immediately vanished (
). I was truly confused, however, about what my father was doing—recreation or part of his job—when I peeked through the window one night and saw him flying.
My father—who’d always delighted me by pointing out the real helicopters from the Coast Guard Air Base when they flew by the house—was piloting his own helicopter right here, right in front of me, in our den. He took off from a little base, complete with a tiny waving American flag, into a black night sky full of twinkling stars, and then immediately crashed to the ground. He gave a little cry that masked my own, but just when I thought the fun was over, he was right back at the little base again with the tiny flag, taking off one more time.
The game was called
and that exclamation point wasn’t just part of its name, it was also part of the experience of playing it.
was thrilling. Again and again I watched these sorties fly out of our den and over a flat desert moon, shooting at, and being shot at by, enemy jets and enemy tanks. The helicopter kept landing and lifting off, as my father tried to rescue a flashing crowd of people and ferry them to safety. That was my earliest sense of my father: he was a hero.
The cheer that came from the couch the first time that the diminutive helicopter touched down intact with a full load of miniature people was just a little too loud. My father’s head snapped to the window to check whether he’d disturbed me, and he caught me dead in the eyes.
I leaped into bed, pulled up the blanket, and lay perfectly still as my father’s heavy steps approached my room.
He tapped on the window. “It’s past your bedtime, buddy. Are you still up?”
I held my breath. Suddenly, he opened the window, reached into my bedroom, picked me up—blanket and all—and pulled me through into the den. It all happened so quickly, my feet never even touched the carpet.
Before I knew it, I was sitting on my father’s lap as his copilot. I was too young and too excited to realize that the joystick he’d given me wasn’t plugged in. All that mattered was that I was flying alongside my father.