Edward Snowden: Life Before The NSA Leak

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Permanent Record" by Edward Snowden. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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What was Edward Snowden like before he ended up being a whistleblower? For Edward Snowden, life took a turn when he learned about mass surveillance. What was his childhood and real life like before that?

For Edward Snowden, childhood exposed him to computers and public service. His interests in technology started young and carried him into his career.

Learn more about Edward Snowden, life as a child and teenager, and how he ended up in public service.

Edward Snowden: Life and Childhood

Edward, who’s referred to as “Ed” throughout the book, was born in 1983, the same year as the public Internet. Growing up, Ed was fascinated by technology. He first encountered video games when he was six and his family got a home computer when he was nine. By age 12, his goal was to spend as much time on the Internet as possible. 

There were a lot of technology changes during the life of Edward Snowden. Childhood for Snowden included an internet that was a different entity than it is today. The early Internet was mainly used by people (rather than governments or businesses), it wasn’t monetized, and it was anonymous. Ed—and everyone—had tremendous freedom online.

Edward Snowden: Life as a Teenager

For Edward Snowden, childhood became challenging as he moved into his teenage years. He began to question authority and got into hacking. His most notable achievement was discovering a security hole on the website of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a US nuclear facility. 

In freshman year of high school, Ed’s parents divorced, and in sophomore year, he came down with mononucleosis. He became too ill to even use the computer and missed so much school he was told he’d have to repeat the year. Ed absolutely did not want to do this, so he “hacked” the school system—he discovered he didn’t actually need a high school diploma to attend college, so he applied to Anne Arundel Community College and was accepted.

For Edward Snowden, life was good when he was in college classes. He enjoyed them more than he’d enjoyed his high school ones. He made friends with a group of people in his Japanese class and one of them, Mae, owned a web design business. She hired Ed to work for her.

Ed was infatuated with Mae, even though she was older and married, and enjoyed working with her even though the actual work was sometimes repetitive. If he wanted to keep working in tech, he knew he’d have to acquire a professional certification, so he tested for his Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE)

Life and Career

For Edward Snowden, life changed on September 11, 2001. Ed had never felt more patriotic or American and decided to serve. He didn’t have enough qualifications to be a hacker for an intelligence agency, and computers were easy for him and he wanted to do something harder. Therefore, he joined the army.

Ed injured his legs during basic training and had to leave the army. The army taught him that the military didn’t want its soldiers to think and that he’d have a better chance at defending democracy from behind a computer. This was another change in perspective for Edward Snowden—life in public service need not be military service. Edward Snowden’s life in the army was quickly changing.

Later, Edward Snowden’s life changed again when he become a technologist. Ed’s first job as a technologist was for a company called COMSO that contracted services to the CIA. (Intelligence agencies rely so heavily on contracting that it’s easier to work for them as a contractor than as an employee.) Ed spent the next few years working at a variety of positions for the CIA and NSA in the US, Geneva, and Tokyo. Because Ed worked with computer systems, he had top secret security clearance and access to more documents than most individuals would, even those higher up in the agency.

Edward Snowden: Life Before The NSA Leak

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Edward Snowden's "Permanent Record" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Permanent Record summary:

  • What Ed Snowden discovered that caused him to completely lose faith in the government
  • How Snowden led the bombshell reports of US mass surveillance
  • How Snowden is coping with his treatment as both patriot and traitor

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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