Authors: Edward Snowden
Every day after school I visited the site to check if the directory structure had changed, and it hadn’t—nothing had changed, except my capacity for shock and indignation. I finally got on the phone, my house’s second line, and called the general information phone number listed at the bottom of the laboratory’s site.
An operator picked up, and the moment she did I started stammering. I don’t even think I got to the end of the phrase “directory structure” before my voice broke. The operator interrupted with a curt “please hold for IT,” and before I could thank her she’d transferred me to a voice mail.
By the time the beep came, I’d regained some modicum of confidence and, with a steadier larynx, I left a message. All I recall now of that message was how I ended it—with relief, and by re
peating my name and phone number. I think I even spelled out my name, like my father sometimes did, using the military phonetic alphabet: “Sierra November Oscar Whiskey Delta Echo November.” Then I hung up and went on with my life, which for a week consisted pretty much exclusively of checking the Los Alamos website.
Nowadays, given the government’s cyberintelligence capabilities, anyone who was pinging the Los Alamos servers a few dozen times a day would almost certainly become a person of interest. Back then, however, I was merely an interested person. I couldn’t understand—didn’t anybody care?
Weeks passed—and weeks can feel like months to a teenager—until one evening, just before dinner, the phone rang. My mother, who was in the kitchen making dinner, picked up.
I was at the computer in the dining room when I heard it was for me: “Yes, uh-huh, he’s here.” Then, “May I ask who’s calling?”
I turned around in my seat and she was standing over me, holding the phone against her chest. All the color had left her face. She was trembling.
Her whisper had a mournful urgency I’d never heard before, and it terrified me: “What did you do?”
Had I known, I would have told her. Instead, I asked, “Who is it?”
“Los Alamos, the nuclear laboratory.”
“Oh, thank God.”
I gently pried the phone away from her and sat her down. “Hello?”
On the line was a friendly representative from Los Alamos IT, who kept calling me Mr. Snowden. He thanked me for reporting the problem and informed me that they’d just fixed it. I restrained myself from asking what had taken so long—I restrained myself from reaching over to the computer and immediately checking the site.
My mother hadn’t taken her eyes off me. She was trying to piece together the conversation, but could only hear one side. I gave her
a thumbs-up, and then, to further reassure her, I affected an older, serious, and unconvincingly deep voice and stiffly explained to the IT rep what he already knew: how I’d found the directory traversal problem, how I’d reported it, how I hadn’t received any response until now. I finished up with, “I really appreciate you telling me. I hope I didn’t cause any problems.”
“Not at all,” the IT rep said, and then asked what I did for a living.
“Nothing really,” I said.
He asked whether I was looking for a job and I said, “During the school year, I’m pretty busy, but I’ve got a lot of vacation and the summers are free.”
That’s when the lightbulb went off, and he realized that he was dealing with a teenager. “Well, kid,” he said, “you’ve got my contact. Be sure and get in touch when you turn eighteen. Now pass me along to that nice lady I spoke to.”
I handed the phone to my anxious mother and she took it back with her into the kitchen, which was filling up with smoke. Dinner was burnt, but I’m guessing the IT rep said enough complimentary things about me that any punishment I was imagining went out the window.
I don’t remember high school very well, because I spent so much of it asleep, compensating for all my insomniac nights on the computer. At Arundel High most of my teachers didn’t mind my little napping habit, and left me alone so long as I wasn’t snoring, though there were still a cruel, joyless few who considered it their duty to always wake me—with the screech of chalk or the clap of erasers—and ambush me with a question: “And what do
think, Mr. Snowden?”
I’d lift my head off my desk, sit up in my chair, yawn, and—as my classmates tried to stifle their laughter—I’d have to answer.
The truth is, I loved these moments, which were among the greatest challenges high school had to offer. I loved being put on the spot, groggy and dazed, with thirty pairs of eyes and ears trained on me and expecting my failure, while I searched for a clue on the half-empty blackboard. If I could think quickly enough to come up with a good answer, I’d be a legend. But if I was too slow, I could always crack a joke—it’s never too late for a joke. In the absolute worst case, I’d sputter, and my classmates would think I was stupid. Let them. You should always let people underestimate
you. Because when people misappraise your intelligence and abilities, they’re merely pointing out their own vulnerabilities—the gaping holes in their judgment that need to stay open if you want to cartwheel through later on a flaming horse, correcting the record with your sword of justice.
When I was a teen, I think I was a touch too enamored of the idea that life’s most important questions are binary, meaning that one answer is always Right, and all the rest of the answers are Wrong. I think I was enchanted by the model of computer programming, whose questions can only be answered in one of two ways: 1 or 0, the machine-code version of Yes or No, True or False. Even the multiple-choice questions of my quizzes and tests could be approached through the oppositional logic of the binary. If I didn’t immediately recognize one of the possible answers as correct, I could always try to reduce my choices by a process of elimination, looking for terms such as “always” or “never” and seeking out invalidating exceptions.
Toward the end of my freshman year, however, I was faced with a very different kind of assignment—a question that couldn’t be answered by filling in bubbles with a #2 pencil, but only by rhetoric: full sentences in full paragraphs. In plain terms, it was an English class assignment, a writing prompt: “Please produce an autobiographical statement of no fewer than 1,000 words.” I was being ordered by strangers to divulge my thoughts on perhaps the only subject on which I didn’t have any thoughts: the subject of me, whoever he was. I just couldn’t do it. I was blocked. I didn’t turn anything in and received an Incomplete.
My problem, like the prompt itself, was personal. I couldn’t “produce an autobiographical statement” because my life at the time was too confusing. This was because my family was falling apart. My parents were getting a divorce. It all happened so fast. My father moved out and my mother put the house in Crofton on the market, and then moved with my sister and me into an apartment, and then into a condominium in a development in nearby Ellicott City. I’ve had friends tell me that you aren’t really an adult
until you bury a parent or become one yourself. But what no one ever mentions is that for kids of a certain age, divorce is like both of those happening simultaneously. Suddenly, the invulnerable icons of your childhood are gone. In their stead, if there’s anyone at all, is a person even more lost than you are, full of tears and rage, who craves your reassurance that everything will turn out okay. It won’t, though, at least not for a while.
As the custody and visitation rights were being sorted by the courts, my sister threw herself into college applications, was accepted, and started counting down the days until she’d leave for the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Losing her meant losing my closest tie to what our family had been.
I reacted by turning inward. I buckled down and willed myself into becoming another person, a shape-shifter putting on the mask of whoever the people I cared about needed at the time. Among family, I was dependable and sincere. Among friends, mirthful and unconcerned. But when I was alone, I was subdued, even morose, and constantly worried about being a burden. I was haunted by all the road trips to North Carolina I’d complained through, all the Christmases I’d ruined by bringing home bad report cards, all the times I’d refused to get off-line and do my chores. Every childhood fuss I’d ever made flickered in my mind like crime-scene footage, evidence that I was responsible for what had happened.
I tried to throw off the guilt by ignoring my emotions and feigning self-sufficiency, until I projected a sort of premature adulthood. I stopped saying that I was “playing” with the computer, and started saying that I was “working” on it. Just changing those words, without remotely changing what I was doing, made a difference in how I was perceived, by others and even by myself.
I stopped calling myself “Eddie.” From now on, I was “Ed.” I got my first cell phone, which I wore clipped to my belt like a grown-ass man.
The unexpected blessing of trauma—the opportunity for reinvention—taught me to appreciate the world beyond the four walls of home. I was surprised to find that as I put more and more
distance between myself and the two adults who loved me the most, I came closer to others, who treated me like a peer. Mentors who taught me to sail, trained me to fight, coached me in public speaking, and gave me the confidence to stand onstage—all of them helped to raise me.
At the beginning of my sophomore year, though, I started getting tired a lot and falling asleep more than usual—not just at school anymore, but now even at the computer. I’d wake up in the middle of the night in a more or less upright position, the screen in front of me full of gibberish because I’d passed out atop the keys. Soon enough my joints were aching, my nodes were swollen, the whites of my eyes turned yellow, and I was too exhausted to get out of bed, even after sleeping for twelve hours or more at a stretch.
After having had more blood taken from me than I’d ever imagined was in my body, I was eventually diagnosed with infectious mononucleosis. It was both a seriously debilitating and seriously humiliating illness for me to have, not least because it’s usually contracted through what my classmates called “hooking up,” and at age fifteen the only “hooking up” I’d ever done involved a modem. School was totally forgotten, my absences piled up, and not even that made me happy. Not even an all-ice-cream diet made me happy. I barely had the energy to do anything but play the games my parents gave me—each of them trying to bring the cooler game, the newer game, as if they were in a competition to perk me up or mitigate their guilt about the divorce. When I no longer had it in me to even work a joystick, I wondered why I was alive. Sometimes I’d wake up unable to recognize my surroundings. It would take me a while to figure out whether the dimness meant that I was at my mother’s condo or my father’s one-bedroom, and I’d have no recollection of having been driven between them. Every day became the same.
It was a haze. I remember reading
The Conscience of a Hacker
The Hacker’s Manifesto
), Neal Stephenson’s
, and reams of J. R. R. Tolkien, falling asleep midchapter and get
ting the characters and action confused, until I was dreaming that Gollum was by my bedside and whining, “Master, Master, information wants to be free.”
While I was resigned to all the fever dreams sleep brought me, the thought of having to catch up on my schoolwork was the true nightmare. After I’d missed approximately four months of class, I got a letter in the mail from Arundel High informing me that I’d have to repeat my sophomore year. I’d say I was shocked, but the moment I read the letter, I realized that I’d known this was inevitable and had been dreading it for weeks. The prospect of returning to school, let alone of repeating two semesters, was unimaginable to me, and I was ready to do whatever it took to avoid it.
Just at the point when my glandular disease had developed into a full-on depression, receiving the school news shook me out of my slump. Suddenly I was upright and getting dressed in something other than pajamas. Suddenly I was online and on the phone, searching for the system’s edges, searching for a hack. After a bit of research, and a lot of form-filling, my solution landed in the mailbox: I’d gotten myself accepted to college. Apparently, you don’t need a high school diploma to apply.
Anne Arundel Community College was a local institution, certainly not as venerable as my sister’s school, but it would do the trick. All that mattered was that it was accredited. I took the offer of admission to my high school administrators, who, with a curious and barely concealed mixture of resignation and glee, agreed to let me enroll. I’d attend college classes two days a week, which was just about the most that I could manage to stay upright and functional. By taking classes above my grade level, I wouldn’t have to suffer through the year I’d missed. I’d just skip it.
AACC was about twenty-five minutes away, and the first few times I drove myself were perilous—I was a newly licensed driver who could barely stay awake at the wheel. I’d go to class and then come directly home to sleep. I was the youngest person in all my classes, and might even have been the youngest person at the school, alternately a mascot-like object of novelty and a discomfit
ing presence. This, along with the fact that I was still recovering, meant that I didn’t hang out much. Also, because AACC was a commuter school, it had no active campus life. The anonymity of the school suited me fine, though, as did my classes, most of which were distinctly more interesting than anything I’d napped through at Arundel High.
any further and leave high school forever, I should note that I still owe that English class assignment, the one marked Incomplete. My autobiographical statement. The older I get, the heavier it weighs on me, and yet writing it hasn’t gotten any easier.
The fact is, no one with a biography like mine ever comes comfortably to autobiography. It’s hard to have spent so much of my life trying to avoid identification, only to turn around completely and share “personal disclosures” in a book. The Intelligence Community tries to inculcate in its workers a baseline anonymity, a sort of blank-page personality upon which to inscribe secrecy and the art of imposture. You train yourself to be inconspicuous, to look and sound like others. You live in the most ordinary house, you drive the most ordinary car, you wear the same ordinary clothes as everyone else. The difference is, you do it on purpose: normalcy, the ordinary, is your cover. This is the perverse reward of a self-denying career that brings no public glory: the private glory comes not during work, but after, when you can go back out among other people again and successfully convince them that you’re one of them.
Though there are a score of more popular and surely more accurate psychological terms for this type of identity split, I tend to think of it as human encryption. As in any process of encryption, the original material—your core identity—still exists, but only in a locked and scrambled form. The equation that enables this ciphering is a simple proportion: the more you know about others, the less you know about yourself. After a time, you might forget your likes and even your dislikes. You can lose your politics, along
with any and all respect for the political process that you might have had. Everything gets subsumed by the job, which begins with a denial of character and ends with a denial of conscience. “Mission First.”
Some version of the above served me for years as an explanation of my dedication to privacy, and my inability or unwillingness to get personal. It’s only now, when I’ve been out of the IC almost as long as I was in it, that I realize: it isn’t nearly enough. After all, I was hardly a spy—I wasn’t even shaving—when I failed to turn in my English class assignment. Instead, I was a kid who’d been practicing spycraft for a while already—partly through my online experiments with game-playing identities, but more than anything through dealing with the silence and lies that followed my parents’ divorce.
With that rupture, we became a family of secret-keepers, experts at subterfuge and hiding. My parents kept secrets from each other, and from me and my sister. My sister and I would eventually keep our own secrets, too, when one of us was staying with our father for the weekend and the other was staying with our mother. One of the most difficult trials that a child of divorce has to face is being interrogated by one parent about the new life of the other.
My mother would be gone for stretches, back on the dating scene. My father tried his best to fill the void, but, at times, he would become enraged by the protracted and expensive divorce process. Whenever that happened, it would seem to me as if our roles had reversed. I had to be assertive and stand up to him, to reason with him.
It’s painful to write this, though not so much because the events of this period are painful to recall as because they’re in no way indicative of my parents’ fundamental decency—or of how, out of love for their children, they were eventually able to bury their differences, reconcile with respect, and flourish separately in peace.
This kind of change is constant, common, and human. But an autobiographical statement is static, the fixed document of a person in flux. This is why the best account that someone can ever
give of themselves is not a statement but a pledge—a pledge to the principles they value, and to the vision of the person they hope to become.
I’d enrolled in community college to save myself time after a setback, not because I intended to continue with my higher education. But I made a pledge to myself that I’d at least complete my high school degree. It was a weekend when I finally kept that promise, driving out to a public school near Baltimore to take the last test I’d ever take for the state of Maryland: the exam for the General Education Development (GED) degree, which the US government recognizes as the standard equivalent to a high school diploma.