Snowden’s Box: Trust in the Age of Surveillance, Jessica Bruder and Dale Maharidge, Verso, 2020, pp.192, ISBN: 978-1-78873-343-4
Much of the story about Edward Snowden has already been told. Of course, there is Snowden’s autobiography, Permanent Record, which details his upbringing, various jobs he worked, and ultimately how he came across an elaborate surveillance operation and what he did with that knowledge. Glenn Greenwald wrote No Place To Hide, in which he details how he became involved in the disclosures, while Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour takes the audience into Snowden’s hotel room in Hong Kong at the time the story hit. These are but a few of the main actors’ accounts among a litany of news articles and tangential books on surveillance that pay homage to Snowden’s bravery. Snowden has given hours of interviews to broadcasters, film-makers, and Joe Rogan, as well. While he remains exiled in Russia, the dust seems to have settled on how the American intelligence community’s biggest scandal occurred.
Snowden’s revelations are merely the latest in the American government’s long history of flouting the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. A group calling itself the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into FBI’s Pennsylvania field office in 1971 as the world watched Joe Frazier beat Muhammad Ali, and wheeled out over a thousand classified documents, which were then distributed to national newspapers. Only Washington Post ran the story that exposed COINTELPRO, a secret government-run program to spy on American citizens deemed subversive. These included communists, feminists, anti-war protesters, Black Panthers, Young Lords and others. The discovery of the NSA in 1971, with the help of Perry Fellwock, and the Church Committee Inquiry was supposed to check the seemingly unrestricted powers of the intelligence community to spy on American citizens. Then Watergate revealed that Nixon was, in fact, a crook. Decades later, when Mark Klein, an AT&T technician, walked into the offices of the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, it was revealed that the telecommunications giant was working with the NSA to wiretap phones. William Binney, Ed Loomis and Diane Roark forced the Defense Department’s Inspector General to investigate the abuse of the Trailblazer program, which analyzed data collected on telecom networks. If these were examples of what was being done at home, then Pentagon Papers and materials leaked by Chelsea Manning showed the effects domestic lies had abroad.
When recounting these stories, historians and journalists often focus on a discrete network of people. In Watergate, Deep Throat (former FBI Associate Director Mark Felt) supplied information to Bob Woodward, who then worked with Carl Bernstein to write All The President’s Men. Still, readers are often left in the dark about a circle of friends or associates who helped the two journalists move with the story. It is precisely this that Snowden’s Box reveals; that such a big story as Snowden’s would not have been possible without a closely-knit circle of trusted confidants that the journalists had to rely on to succeed. By delegating some of the responsibility, Poitras and Snowden could connect and reveal the NSA’s secrets.
Dale Maharidge and Jessica Bruder, a pair of long-form cultural journalists, join the fray by telling a story of their accidental involvement in the revelations. Maharidge befriended Poitras at a party in 2011 and shortly after became a crucial node in a network of journalists that helped Snowden. Snowden wanted to forward physical copies of his documents to Poitras, but ever-so-vigilant Poitras Snowden believed that these had to be given to others in case something happened to the two of them. Poitras enlisted Maharidge, who was ineligible to receive them because of his close association to Poitras, to find someone who could receive the documents. Enter Bruder, a friend of Maharidge’s, and her walk-up Manhattan apartment.
Despite the high-tech aura associated with Snowden, the documents were delivered to Bruder’s apartment by the US Postal Service Priority. Neither Maharidge nor Bruder knew the contents of the box, but they solely relied on their mutual trust and desire to help Poitras. Their story reveals their fears about becoming a part, albeit unwittingly, of the network that exposed the malfeasance of the most powerful intelligence agency in the world. Bruder feared that she would become subject to intrusive surveillance because of the box she received after discovering that USPS takes pictures of all the mail that passes through them. Maharidge became more conscious of mechanisms to ensure privacy. Both feared that the intelligence community was after them, a paralyzing fear that borders on paranoia. As they remind us, this is precisely the intended effect, for if we begin policing ourselves, we are effectively doing their job for them. Moreover, the consciousness of the possibility of having one’s sources, research, and writing monitored by the State impacts the quality of the output. It leads to self-censorship and unquestioning repetition of the information handed down by the government, which is, in turn, what allows the surveillance to occur.
In Snowden’s Box, the authors argue that strong networks based on trust can successfully defy even the most powerful surveillance states. Though the appendix offers tools to strengthen that trust digitally by adopting online practices and using community-reviewed, open-source software to protect communications. However, what is needed to counter an unaccountable intelligence agency is not a small network of trust but a broad and powerful movement that can challenge both corporate and State interests in surveillance.