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Report — From the May 2017 issue

Snowden’s Box

The human network behind the biggest leak of all

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BRUDER

In the days after I passed the box to Dale, he intimated that he’d been learning more about it, but told me nothing. “Watch the news,” he said. “You’ll know when the story hits.”

On June 5, the Guardian published a top-secret court ruling in which the U.S. government had ordered Verizon to turn over millions of customers’ phone records “on an ongoing, daily basis.” The newspaper was vague about the source of this classified information.

After reading the story, I called Dale: “Is that it?”

“Yes.”

“Shit.” I felt light-headed. “Is that all of it?”

“No.”

Over the next few days, more disclosures followed. The NSA had been collecting users’ private communications from AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and other companies. President Obama had told intelligence officials to make a list of possible foreign targets for American cyberattacks. During a single thirty-day period, the NSA had harvested nearly 3 billion pieces of intelligence from U.S. computer networks. And so on. Dale and I spoke again.

“All that stuff was in the box?”

“Yes.”

“There must have been other boxes?”

“No.”

The more details that emerged about the reach and sophistication of government surveillance, the more absurd our situation seemed. Some of the most sensitive intelligence information in the world had traveled in plain sight through the U.S. mail, then sat in my hallway, where it could have been pilfered as casually as all those other packages.

Thinking about that made my head spin. It also reflected what I consider to be one of the great lessons of adulthood: that most of the institutions and endeavors we regard as ironclad — from parenting to politics — are actually held together with chewing gum and duct tape. Nothing truly works, at least not for long, or not in the way it’s supposed to. This reality is terrifying, because it exposes the precariousness of the existing order. But it’s also liberating, because it encourages the individual to act, to defy the ominous mythology of competence and control.

The only person I could talk to about all this was Dale. But he didn’t seem to know the full extent of what was happening either.

So now what? There was no way to predict how many more stories were coming or what they might reveal. I’d never been so close to something I knew so little about. It was bewildering, like having a front-row seat to a play performed in a language I didn’t understand. Would I return home one day to find federal agents at my door? Should Dale and I be taking steps to protect ourselves?

Inaction was making me crazy. I needed to do something. On the roof above my apartment, I had built a picnic table out of blue wooden sawhorses, the kind the N.Y.P.D. uses for crowd control. Earlier I’d thought it was funny, a piece of antiauthoritarian patio furniture. Now it seemed like a liability — too visible — so I decided to cover it up. After that I felt a little better. But not much.

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’s article “The End of Retirement” appeared in the August 2014 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Her book Nomadland will be published by W. W. Norton in September.

 

is the author of ten books, the most recent of which is Bringing Mulligan Home.

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