Authors: Edward Snowden
I decided that to figure out what was wrong with the thing, first I had to take it apart. Basically, I was just copying, or trying to copy, the same motions that my father went through whenever he sat at the kitchen table repairing the house’s VCR or cassette deck—the two household machines that, to my eye, the Nintendo console most closely resembled. It took me about an hour to dismantle the console, with my uncoordinated and very small hands trying to twist a flat screwdriver into Philips-head screws, but eventually I succeeded.
The console’s exterior was a dull, monochrome gray, but the interior was a welter of colors. It seemed like there was an entire rainbow of wires and glints of silver and gold jutting out of the green-as-grass circuitboard. I tightened a few things here, loosened a few things there—more or less at random—and blew on every part. After that, I wiped them all down with a paper towel. Then I had to blow on the circuitboard again to remove the bits of paper towel that had gotten stuck to what I now know were the pins.
Once I’d finished my cleaning and repairs, it was time for reassembly. Our golden Lab, Treasure, might have swallowed one of the tiny screws, or maybe it just got lost in the carpet or under the couch. And I must not have put all the components back in the same way I’d found them, because they barely fit into the console’s
shell. The shell’s lid kept popping off, so I found myself squeezing the components down, the way you try to shut an overstuffed suitcase. Finally the lid snapped into place, but only on one side. The other side bulged up, and snapping that side into place only caused the first side to bulge. I went back and forth like that for a while, until I finally gave up and plugged the unit in again.
I pressed the Power button—and nothing. I pressed the Reset button—and nothing. Those were the only two buttons on the console. Before my repairs, the light next to the buttons had always glowed molten red, but now even that was dead. The console just sat there lopsided and useless, and I felt a surge of guilt and dread.
My father, when he came home from his Coast Guard trip, wasn’t going to be proud of me: he was going to jump on my head like a Goomba. But it wasn’t his anger I feared so much as his disappointment. To his peers, my father was a master electronics systems engineer who specialized in avionics. To me, he was a household mad scientist who’d try to fix everything himself—electrical outlets, dishwashers, hot-water heaters, and AC units. I’d work as his helper whenever he’d let me, and in the process I’d come to know both the physical pleasures of manual work and the intellectual pleasures of basic mechanics, along with the fundamental principles of electronics—the differences between voltage and current, between power and resistance. Every job we undertook together would end either in a successful act of repair or a curse, as my father would fling the unsalvageable piece of equipment across the room and into the cardboard box of things-that-can’t-be-unbroken. I never judged him for these failures—I was always too impressed by the fact that he had dared to hazard an attempt.
When he returned home and found out what I’d done to the NES, he wasn’t angry, much to my surprise. He wasn’t exactly pleased, either, but he was patient. He explained that understanding why and how things had gone wrong was every bit as impor
tant as understanding what component had failed: figuring out the why and how would let you prevent the same malfunction from happening again in the future. He pointed to each of the console’s parts in turn, explaining not just what it was, but what it did, and how it interacted with all the other parts to contribute to the correct working of the mechanism. Only by analyzing a mechanism in its individual parts were you able to determine whether its design was the most efficient to achieve its task. If it was the most efficient, just malfunctioning, then you fixed it. But if not, then you made modifications to improve the mechanism. This was the only proper protocol for repair jobs, according to my father, and nothing about it was optional—in fact, this was the fundamental responsibility you had to technology.
Like all my father’s lessons, this one had broad applications beyond our immediate task. Ultimately, it was a lesson in the principle of self-reliance, which my father insisted that America had forgotten sometime between his own childhood and mine. Ours was now a country in which the cost of replacing a broken machine with a newer model was typically lower than the cost of having it fixed by an expert, which itself was typically lower than the cost of sourcing the parts and figuring out how to fix it yourself. This fact alone virtually guaranteed technological tyranny, which was perpetuated not by the technology itself but by the ignorance of everyone who used it daily and yet failed to understand it. To refuse to inform yourself about the basic operation and maintenance of the equipment you depended on was to passively accept that tyranny and agree to its terms: when your equipment works, you’ll work, but when your equipment breaks down you’ll break down, too. Your possessions would possess you.
It turned out that I had probably just broken a solder joint, but to find out exactly which one, my father wanted to use special test equipment that he had access to at his laboratory at the Coast Guard base. I suppose he could have brought the test equipment home with him, but for some reason he brought me to work in
stead. I think he just wanted to show me his lab. He’d decided I was ready.
I wasn’t. I’d never been anywhere so impressive. Not even the library. Not even the Radio Shack at the Lynnhaven Mall. What I remember most are the screens. The lab itself was dim and empty, the standard-issue beige and white of government construction, but even before my father hit the lights I couldn’t help but be transfixed by the pulsating glow of electric green.
Why does this place have so many TVs?
was my first thought, quickly followed up by,
And why are they all tuned to the same channel?
My father explained that these weren’t TVs but computers, and though I’d heard the word before, I didn’t know what it meant. I think I initially assumed that the screens—the monitors—were the computers themselves.
He went on to show them to me, one by one, and tried to explain what they did: this one processed radar signals, and that one relayed radio transmissions, and yet another one simulated the electronic systems on aircraft. I won’t pretend that I understood even half of it. These computers were more advanced than nearly everything in use at that time in the private sector, far ahead of almost anything I had ever imagined. Sure, their processing units took a full five minutes to boot, their displays only showed one color, and they had no speakers for sound effects or music. But those limitations only marked them as serious.
My father plopped me down in a chair, raising it until I could just about reach the desk, and the rectangular hunk of plastic that was on it. For the first time in my life, I found myself in front of a keyboard. My father had never let me type on his Commodore 64, and my screen time had been restricted to video game consoles with their purpose-built controllers. But these computers were professional, general-purpose machines, not gaming devices, and I didn’t understand how to make them work. There was no controller, no joystick, no gun—the only interface was that flat hunk of plastic set with rows of keys printed with letters and numbers. The
letters were even arranged in a different order than the one that I’d been taught at school. The first letter was not A but Q, followed by W, E, R, T, and Y. At least the numbers were in the same order in which I’d learned them.
My father told me that every key on the keyboard had a purpose—every letter, every number—and that their combinations had purposes, too. And just like with the buttons on a controller or joystick, if you could figure out the right combinations, you could work miracles. To demonstrate, he reached over me, typed a command, and pressed the Enter key. Something popped up on-screen that I now know is called a text editor. Then he grabbed a Post-it note and a pen and scribbled out some letters and numbers, and told me to type them up exactly while he went off to repair the broken Nintendo.
The moment he was gone, I began reproducing his scribbles on-screen by pecking away at the keys. A left-handed kid raised to be a rightie, I immediately found this to be the most natural method of writing I’d ever encountered.
INPUT “WHAT IS YOUR NAME?”; NAME$
PRINT “HELLO, “+ NAME$ + “!”
It may sound easy to you, but you’re not a young child. I was. I was a young child with chubby, stubby fingers who didn’t even know what quotation marks were, let alone that I had to hold down the Shift key in order to type them. After a whole lot of trial, and a whole lot of error, I finally succeeded in finishing the file. I pressed Enter and, in a flash, the computer was asking me a question:
WHAT IS YOUR NAME
I was fascinated. The note didn’t say what I was supposed do next, so I decided to answer, and pressed my new friend Enter once more. Suddenly, out of nowhere,
! wrote itself on-screen in a radioactive green that floated atop the blackness.
This was my introduction to programming and to computing in general: a lesson in the fact that these machines do what they do because somebody tells them to, in a very special, very careful way. And that somebody can even be seven years old.
Almost immediately, I grasped the limitations of gaming systems. They were stifling in comparison to computer systems. Nintendo, Atari, Sega—they all confined you to levels and worlds that you could advance through, even defeat, but never change. The repaired Nintendo console went back to the den, where my father and I competed in two-player
. By that point, I was significantly better than him at all those games—the first pursuit at which I proved more adept than my father—but every so often I’d let him beat me. I didn’t want him to think that I wasn’t grateful.
I’m not a natural programmer, and I’ve never considered myself any good at it. But I did, over the next decade or so, become good enough to be dangerous. To this day, I still find the process magical: typing in the commands in all these strange languages that the processor then translates into an experience that’s available not just to me but to everyone. I was fascinated by the thought that one individual programmer could code something universal, something bound by no laws or rules or regulations except those essentially reducible to cause and effect. There was an utterly logical relationship between my input and the output. If my input was flawed, the output was flawed; if my input was flawless, the computer’s output was, too. I’d never before experienced anything so consistent and fair, so unequivocally unbiased. A computer would wait forever to receive my command but would process it the very moment I hit Enter, no questions asked. No teacher had ever been so patient, yet so responsive. Nowhere else—certainly not at school, and not even at home—had I ever felt so in control. That a perfectly written set of commands would perfectly execute the same operations time and again would come to seem to me—as it did to so many smart, tech-inclined children of the millennium—the one stable saving truth of our generation.
I was just shy of my ninth birthday when my family moved from North Carolina to Maryland. To my surprise, I found that my name had preceded me. “Snowden” was everywhere throughout Anne Arundel, the county we settled in, though it was a while before I learned why.
Richard Snowden was a British major who arrived in the province of Maryland in 1658 with the understanding that Lord Baltimore’s guarantee of religious freedom for both Catholics and Protestants would also be extended to Quakers. In 1674, Richard was joined by his brother John, who’d agreed to leave Yorkshire in order to shorten his prison sentence for preaching the Quaker faith. When William Penn’s ship, the
, sailed up the Delaware in 1682, John was one of the few Europeans to greet it.
Three of John’s grandsons went on to serve in the Continental Army during the Revolution. As the Quakers are pacifists, they came in for community censure for deciding to join the fight for independence, but their conscience demanded a reconsideration of their pacifism. William Snowden, my direct paternal ancestor, served as a captain, was taken prisoner by the British in the Bat
tle of Fort Washington in New York, and died in custody at one of the notorious sugar house prisons in Manhattan. (Legend has it that the British killed their POWs by forcing them to eat gruel laced with ground glass.) His wife, Elizabeth née Moor, was a valued adviser to General Washington, and the mother to another John Snowden—a politician, historian, and newspaper publisher in Pennsylvania whose descendants dispersed southward to settle amid the Maryland holdings of their Snowden cousins.
Anne Arundel County encompasses nearly all of the 1,976 acres of woodland that King Charles II granted to the family of Richard Snowden in 1686. The enterprises the Snowdens established there include the Patuxent Iron Works, one of colonial America’s most important forges and a major manufacturer of cannonballs and bullets, and Snowden Plantation, a farm and dairy run by Richard Snowden’s grandsons. After serving in the heroic Maryland Line of the Continental Army, they returned to the plantation and—most fully living the principles of independence—abolished their family’s practice of slavery, freeing their two hundred African slaves nearly a full century before the Civil War.
Today, the former Snowden fields are bisected by Snowden River Parkway, a busy four-lane commercial stretch of upmarket chain restaurants and car dealerships. Nearby, Route 32/Patuxent Freeway leads directly to Fort George G. Meade, the second-largest army base in the country and the home of the NSA. Fort Meade, in fact, is built atop land that was once owned by my Snowden cousins, and that was either bought from them (in one account) or expropriated from them (according to others) by the US government.
I knew nothing of this history at the time: my parents joked that the state of Maryland changed the name on the signs every time somebody new moved in. They thought that was funny but I just found it spooky. Anne Arundel County is only a bit more than 250 miles away from Elizabeth City via I-95, yet it felt like a different planet. We’d exchanged the leafy riverside for a concrete
sidewalk, and a school where I’d been popular and academically successful for one where I was constantly mocked for my glasses, my disinterest in sports, and, especially, for my accent—a strong Southern drawl that led my new classmates to call me “retarded.”
I was so sensitive about my accent that I stopped speaking in class and started practicing alone at home until I managed to sound “normal”—or, at least, until I managed not to pronounce the site of my humiliation as “Anglish clay-iss” or say that I’d gotten a paper cut on my “fanger.” Meanwhile, all that time I’d been afraid to speak freely had caused my grades to plummet, and some of my teachers decided to have me IQ-tested as a way of diagnosing what they thought was a learning disability. When my score came back, I don’t remember getting any apologies, just a bunch of extra “enrichment assignments.” Indeed, the same teachers who’d doubted my ability to learn now began to take issue with my newfound interest in speaking up.
My new home was on the Beltway, which traditionally referred to Interstate 495, the highway that encircles Washington, DC, but now describes the vast and ever-expanding blast radius of bedroom communities around the nation’s capital, stretching north to Baltimore, Maryland, and south to Quantico, Virginia. The inhabitants of these suburbs almost invariably either serve in the US government or work for one of the companies that do business with the US government. There is, to put it plainly, no other reason to be there.
We lived in Crofton, Maryland, halfway between Annapolis and Washington, DC, at the western edge of Anne Arundel County, where the residential developments are all in the vinyl-sided Federalist style and have quaint ye-olde names like Crofton Towne, Crofton Mews, The Preserve, The Ridings. Crofton itself is a planned community fitted around the curves of the Crofton Country Club. On a map, it resembles nothing so much as the human brain, with the streets coiling and kinking and folding around one another like the ridges and furrows of the cerebral cortex. Our
street was Knights Bridge Turn, a broad, lazy loop of split-level housing, wide driveways, and two-car garages. The house we lived in was seven down from one end of the loop, seven down from the other—the house in the middle. I got a Huffy ten-speed bike and with it, a paper route, delivering the
, a venerable newspaper published in Annapolis, whose daily distribution became distressingly erratic, especially in the winter, especially between Crofton Parkway and Route 450, which, as it passed by our neighborhood, acquired a different name: Defense Highway.
For my parents this was an exciting time. Crofton was a step up for them, both economically and socially. The streets were tree-lined and pretty much crime-free, and the multicultural, multiracial, multilingual population, which reflected the diversity of the Beltway’s diplomatic corps and intelligence community, was well-to-do and well educated. Our backyard was basically a golf course, with tennis courts just around the corner, and beyond those an Olympic-size pool. Commuting-wise, too, Crofton was ideal. It took my father just forty minutes to get to his new posting as a chief warrant officer in the Aeronautical Engineering Division at Coast Guard Headquarters, which at the time was located at Buzzard Point in southern Washington, DC, adjacent to Fort Lesley J. McNair. And it took my mother just twenty or so minutes to get to her new job at the NSA, whose boxy futuristic headquarters, topped with radomes and sheathed in copper to seal in the communications signals, forms the heart of Fort Meade.
I can’t stress this enough, for outsiders: this type of employment was normal. Neighbors to our left worked for the Defense Department; neighbors to the right worked in the Department of Energy and the Department of Commerce. For a while, nearly every girl at school on whom I had a crush had a father in the FBI. Fort Meade was just the place where my mother worked, along with about 125,000 other employees, approximately 40,000 of whom resided on-site, many with their families. The base was home to over 115 government agencies, in addition to forces from all five branches
of the military. To put it in perspective, in Anne Arundel County, population just over half a million, every eight hundredth person works for the post office, every thirtieth person works for the public school system, and every fourth person works for, or serves in, a business, agency, or branch connected to Fort Meade. The base has its own post offices, schools, police, and fire departments. Area children, military brats and civilians alike, would flock to the base daily to take golf, tennis, and swimming lessons. Though we lived off base, my mother still used its commissary as our grocery store, to stock up on items in bulk. She also took advantage of the base’s PX, or Post Exchange, as a one-stop shop for the sensible and, most important, tax-free clothing that my sister and I were constantly outgrowing. Perhaps it’s best, then, for readers not raised in this milieu to imagine Fort Meade and its environs, if not the entire Beltway, as one enormous boom-or-bust company town. It is a place whose monoculture has much in common with, say, Silicon Valley’s, except that the Beltway’s product isn’t technology but government itself.
I should add that both my parents had top secret clearances, but my mother also had a full-scope polygraph—a higher-level security check that members of the military aren’t subject to. The funny thing is, my mother was the farthest thing from a spy. She was a clerk at an independent insurance and benefits association that serviced employees of the NSA—essentially, providing spies with retirement plans. But still, to process pension forms she had to be vetted as if she were about to parachute into a jungle to stage a coup.
My father’s career remains fairly opaque to me to this day, and the fact is that my ignorance here isn’t anomalous. In the world I grew up in, nobody really talked about their jobs—not just to children, but to each other. It is true that many of the adults around me were legally prohibited from discussing their work, even with their families, but to my mind a more accurate explanation lies in the technical nature of their labor and the government’s insistence
on compartmentalization. Tech people rarely, if ever, have a sense of the broader applications and policy implications of the projects to which they’re assigned. And the work that consumes them tends to require such specialized knowledge that to bring it up at a barbecue would get them disinvited from the next one, because nobody cared.
In retrospect, maybe that’s what got us here.