/ Cory Doctorow / 4 am Tue, Mar 31 2020
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  • Snowden's Box: the incredible, illuminating story of the journey of Snowden's hard drive

    Snowden's Box: the incredible, illuminating story of the journey of Snowden's hard drive

    Dale Maharidge is a journalist and J-school professor who is dear old friends with the muckracking, outstanding political documentarian Laura Poitras. Jessica Bruder (previously) is a a writer and J-school prof who's best friends with Maharidge. When Laura Poitras was contacted by an NSA whistleblower who wanted to send her the leak of the century, she asked Maharidge for help finding a safe address for a postal delivery, and Maharidge gave her Bruder's Brooklyn apartment address. A few weeks later, Bruder came home from a work-trip to discover a box on her doormat with the return address of "B. Manning, 94-1054 Eleu St, Waipau, HI 96797." In it was a hard-drive. The story of what happened next is documented in a beautifully written, gripping new book: Snowden's Box: Trust in the Age of Surveillance.

    The chapters in Snowden's Box alternate between Bruder and Maharidge, as each of them recounts their part in the journey of the most consequential US postal shipment of the 21st century. At times, it reads like a comedy of errors (Bruder notes that several of her parcels had been stolen off her doormat and marvels that the Snowden box sat unattended for several days while she was out of town), and at others, like a painstakingly researched opsec thriller, with phones in freezers and meetings in members clubs like Soho House (joining takes months and personal references, so spooks who get shifted around all the time struggle to get memberships).

    I've read virtually all of the books about the Snowden leaks, but this one stands apart. The two most striking things about this slim volume are, first, the crucial role that personal trust plays in the narrative. Snowden trusts Poitras because of her long history of excellent and principled work. Poitras trusts Maharidge because of their long friendship, and Maharidge trusts Bruder for the same reason. This web of personal relationships are the secret fuel of our day-to-day, moment-to-moment existence -- and it's this web that surveillance destroys, by begetting a "low-trust society" in which no one is free to be their authentic selves, and so no one trusts anyone.

    The other remarkable revelation here is the slapdash nature of the whole enterprise -- both the state surveillance side and the whistleblowing side. Snowden's own memoir hints at this, detailing the grift and skullduggery of beltway bandits and how that let him smuggle all those secrets out of a secure facility.

    But Snowden's Box goes further: how did the postal service's own continuous surveillance fail to lead them to Maharidge? Why did Snowden use "B. Manning" for his return address? (He's not saying, but Bruder thinks it might have been graveyard humor, Snowden signing his own death-warrant).

    The tick-tock of how the secrets got out, how the journalists who received them communicated, how they argued about whether and how to cover the story, and what happened to the supporting cast of characters is a fascinating tale in its own right, a key piece of the history of one of the transformative moments in the history of technology and democracy. Poitras had asked her friends to keep this material to themselves for several years, and it was only her permission that made the book possible.

    The Snowden leaks are, at the end of the day, about trust: whether we can trust our government, whether it trusts us, and whether we can trust each other. Technology can't create trust, but it can surely allow trusted parties to keep secrets among themselves -- and technology, foolishly used, can annihilate trust utterly.

    Snowden's Box: Trust in the Age of Surveillance [Jessica Bruder and Dale Maharidge/Verso]

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