Exclusive: Edward Snowden’s First Adventures in Cyberspace
I was just shy of my ninth birthday when my family moved to Maryland. We lived in Crofton, halfway between Annapolis and Washington, DC, where the developments all have quaint names like Crofton Towne, Crofton Mews, The Ridings. Crofton itself is a planned community fitted around the curves of the Crofton Country Club. (The fact that a country club is at the center tells you everything.) Our street was Knights Bridge Turn, a broad, lazy loop of split-level housing, wide driveways, and two-car garages. I had a Huffy ten-speed bike and delivered The Capital, 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. 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, at the time located at Buzzard Point in southern Washington, DC. And it took my mother just twenty minutes to get to her new job at the National Security Agency, whose boxy futuristic headquarters, topped with radomes and sheathed in copper to seal in the communications signals, forms the heart of Fort Meade.
It was soon after we moved to Crofton that my father brought home our first computer, a Compaq Presario 425, list price $1,399 but purchased at his military discount, and initially set up—much to my mother’s chagrin—smack in the middle of the dining-room table. From the moment it appeared, the computer and I were inseparable. If previously I’d been loath to go outside and kick around a ball, now the very idea seemed ludicrous.
This Compaq became my constant companion—my third parent, second sibling, and first love. It came into my life just at the age when I was first discovering an independent self and the multiple worlds that can simultaneously exist within this world. That process of exploration was so exciting that it made me take for granted and even neglect, for a while at least, the family and life that I already had. Another way of saying this is I was just experiencing the early throes of puberty. But this was a technologized puberty, and the tremendous changes that it wrought in me were, in a way, being wrought everywhere, in everyone.
My parents would call me to get ready for school, but I wouldn’t hear them. They’d call me to wash up for dinner, but I’d pretend not to hear them. And whenever I was reminded that the computer was a shared computer and not my personal machine, I’d relinquish my seat with such reluctance that as my father, or mother, or sister took their turn, they’d have to order me out of the room entirely lest I hover moodily over their shoulders and offer advice.
I’d try to rush them through their tasks, so I could get back to mine, which were so much more important—like playing Loom. As technology had advanced, games involving Pong paddles and helicopters had lost ground to ones that realized that at the heart of every computer user was a book reader, a being with the desire not just for sensation but for story. The crude Nintendo, Atari, and Sega games of my childhood, with plots along the lines of (and this is a real example) rescuing the president of the United States from ninjas, now gave way to detailed reimaginings of the ancient tales that I’d paged through while lying on the carpet of my grandmother’s house.
Loom was about a society of Weavers whose elders create a secret loom that controls the world, or, according to the script of the game, that weaves “subtle patterns of influence into the very fabric of reality.” When a young boy discovers the loom’s power, he’s forced into exile, and everything spirals into chaos until the world decides that a secret fate machine might not be such a great idea, after all.
Unbelievable, sure. But then again, it’s just a game.
Still, it wasn’t lost on me, even at that young age, that the titular machine of the game was a symbol of sorts for the computer on which I was playing it. The loom’s rainbow-colored threads were like the computer’s rainbow-colored internal wires, and the lone gray thread that foretold an uncertain future was like the long gray phone cord that came out of the back of the computer and connected it to the great wide world beyond. There, for me, was the true magic: with just this cord, the Compaq’s expansion card and modem, and a working phone, I could dial up and connect to something new called the Internet.
Nowadays, connectivity is just presumed. smartphones, laptops, desktops, everything’s connected, always. Connected to what exactly? How? It doesn’t matter. You just tap the icon your older relatives call “the Internet button” and boom, you’ve got it: the news, pizza delivery, streaming music, and streaming video that we used to call TV and movies. Back then, however, we plugged our modems directly into the wall, with manly twelve-year-old hands.
I’m not saying that I knew much about what the Internet was, or how exactly I was connecting to it, but I did understand the miraculousness of it all. Because in those days, when you told the computer to connect, you were setting off an entire process wherein the computer would beep and hiss like a traffic jam of snakes, after which—and it could take lifetimes, or at least whole minutes—you could then pick up any other phone in the house on an extension line and actually hear the computers talking. You couldn’t actually understand what they were saying to each other, of course, since they were speaking in a machine language that transmitted up to fourteen thousand symbols per second. Still, even that incomprehension was an astonishingly clear indication that phone calls were no longer just for older teenage sisters.
From the age of twelve or so, I tried to spend my every waking moment online. The Internet was my sanctuary; the Web became my jungle gym, my treehouse, my fortress, my classroom without walls. If it were possible, I became even more sedentary. If it were possible, I became even paler. Gradually, I stopped sleeping at night and instead slept by day in school. My grades went into free fall.
I wasn’t worried by this academic setback, however, and I’m not sure that my parents were, either. After all, the education that I was getting online was far better and even far more practical for my future career prospects than anything provided by school. That, at least, was what I kept telling my mother and father.
My curiosity felt as vast as the Internet itself: a limitless space that was growing exponentially, adding webpages by the day, by the hour, by the minute, on subjects that I knew nothing about, on subjects that I’d never heard of before—yet the moment that I did hear about them, I’d develop an insatiable desire to understand them in their every detail. My appetite wasn’t limited to serious tech subjects like how to fix a CD-ROM drive, of course. I also spent plenty of time on gaming sites searching for god-mode cheat codes for Doom and Quake. But I’m not sure I was able to say where one subject ended and another began. A crash course on how to build my own computer led to a crash course in processor architecture, with side excursions into information about martial arts, guns, sports cars, and—full disclosure—softcore-ish goth-y porn.
It was like I was in a race with the technology, in the same way that some of the teenage boys around me were in a race with one another to see who’d grow the tallest, or who’d get facial hair first. I found it so demanding I started to resent my parents whenever they—in response to a particularly substandard report card or a detention I received—would force me off the computer on a school night. After repeated parental warnings and threats of grounding, I’d finally relent and print out whatever file I was reading and bring the dot-matrix pages up to bed, studying in hard copy until my parents had gone to bed themselves, and then I’d tiptoe out into the dark. Guiding myself by the glow of the screen saver, I’d wake the computer up and go online, holding my pillows against the machine to stifle the dial tone of the modem and the ever-intensifying hiss of its connection.
How can I explain it, to someone who wasn’t there? Younger readers might think of the nascent Internet as way too slow, the nascent Web as too ugly and unentertaining. But that would be wrong. Back then, being online was another life, separate and distinct from Real Life. And it was up to each individual user to determine for themselves where one ended and the other began.
This was so inspiring: the freedom to imagine something entirely new, the freedom to start over. A typical GeoCities site, for example, might have a flashing background that alternated between green and blue, with white text scrolling like an exclamatory chyron across the middle—Read This First!!!—below the .gif of a dancing hamster. But to me, all these quirks and tics of amateur production merely indicated that the guiding intelligence behind the site was human, and unique.
Computer-science professors and systems engineers, moonlighting English majors and basement-dwelling armchair political economists were all only too happy to share their research and convictions—not for any financial reward, but merely to win converts to their cause. And whether that cause was PC or Mac, macrobiotic diets or the abolition of the death penalty, I was interested. I was interested because they were enthused.
As the millennium approached, the online world would become increasingly centralized and consolidated, with both governments and businesses accelerating their attempts to intervene in what had always been a fundamentally peer-to-peer relationship. But for one brief and beautiful stretch of time—a stretch that, fortunately for me, coincided almost exactly with my adolescence—the Internet was mostly made of, by, and for the people. Its purpose was to enlighten, not to monetize, and it was administered more by a provisional cluster of perpetually shifting collective norms than by exploitative, globally enforceable terms-of-service agreements. To this day, I consider the 1990s online to have been the most pleasant and successful anarchy I’ve ever experienced.
I was especially involved with the Web-based bulletin-board systems or BBSes. You could pick a username and type out whatever message you wanted to post. Any and all messages that replied to your post would be organized by thread. Imagine the longest email chain you’ve ever been on, but in public. There were also chat applications, like Internet Relay Chat, which provided an immediate-gratification instant-message version of the same experience. You could discuss any topic in real time, or at least as close to real time as a telephone conversation.
Most of the chatting I did was about how to build my own computer, and the responses I received were so considered and thorough, so generous and kind, they’d be unthinkable today. My panicked query about why a certain chipset for which I’d saved up my allowance didn’t seem to be compatible with the motherboard I’d already gotten for Christmas would elicit a two-thousand-word explanation and note of advice from a professional tenured computer scientist on the other side of the country. I attribute this civility, so far removed from our current social-media sniping, to the high bar for entry at the time. After all, the only people on these boards at the time were the people who could be there—who wanted to be there badly enough, who had the proficiency and passion—because the Internet of the 1990s wasn’t just one click away. It took significant effort just to log on.
Once, a certain BBS that I was on tried to coordinate casual in-the-flesh meetings: in DC, in New York, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. After being pressured to attend—and promised extravagant evenings of eating and drinking—I finally just told everyone how old I was. I was afraid that some of my correspondents might stop interacting with me, but instead they became, if anything, even more encouraging. One guy offered to ship me secondhand computers through the mail, free of charge.
I might have told the BBSers my age, but I never told them my name, because one of the greatest joys of these platforms was that on them I didn’t have to be who I was. I could be anybody. I could take cover under virtually any handle, or “nym,” as they were called, and suddenly become an older, taller, manlier version of myself. I could even be multiple selves. I took advantage of this feature by asking what I sensed were my more amateur questions on what seemed to me the more amateur boards, under different personas each time. My computer skills were improving so swiftly that instead of being proud of all the progress I’d made, I was embarrassed by my previous ignorance. I’d tell myself that squ33ker had been so dumb when “he” had asked that question about chipset compatibility way back, long ago, last Wednesday.
For all of this cooperative, collectivist free-culture ethos, I’m not going to pretend that the competition wasn’t merciless, or that the population—almost uniformly male, heterosexual, and hormonally charged—didn’t occasionally erupt into cruel and petty squabbles. But in the absence of real names, the people who claimed to hate you weren’t real people. They didn’t know anything about you beyond what you argued, and how you argued it. If, or rather when, one of your arguments incurred some online wrath, you could simply drop that screenname and assume another mask, under the cover of which you could even join in the mimetic pile-on, beating up on your disowned avatar as if it were a stranger. I can’t tell you what sweet relief that sometimes was.
In the 1990s, the Internet had yet to fall victim to the greatest iniquity in digital history: the move by both government and businesses to link, as intimately as possible, users’ online personas to their offline legal identity. Kids used to be able to go online and say the dumbest things one day without having to be held accountable for them the next. This might not strike you as the healthiest environment in which to grow up, and yet it is precisely the only environment in which you can grow up—by which I mean that the early Internet’s dissociative opportunities actually encouraged me and those of my generation to change our most deeply held opinions, instead of just digging in and defending them when challenged. To me, and to many, this felt like freedom.
You could wake up every morning and pick a new name and a new face by which to be known to the world—as if the “Internet button” were actually a reset button for your life. In the new millennium, Internet technology would be turned to very different ends: enforcing fidelity to memory, identarian consistency, and so ideological conformity. But back then, for a while at least, it protected us by forgetting our transgressions and forgiving our sins.
My most significant early encounters happened not on BBSes, however, but in a more fantastical realm: the pseudo-feudal lands and dungeons of role-playing games, MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) in particular. In order to play Ultima Online, which was my favorite MMORPG, I had to create and assume an alternative identity, or “alt.” I could choose, for example, to be a wizard or warrior, a tinker or thief, and I could toggle between these “alts” with a freedom that was unavailable to me in offline life, whose institutions tend to regard all mutability as suspicious.
I’d roam the Ultima gamescape as one of my “alts,” interacting with the “alts” of others. As I got to know these other “alts,” by collaborating with them on certain quests, I’d sometimes come to realize that I’d met their users before, just under different identities, while they, in turn, might realize the same about me. Sometimes I just enjoyed these interactions as opportunities for banter, but more often than not I treated them competitively, measuring my success by whether I was able to identify more of another user’s “alts” than they were able to identify of mine. These contests to determine whether I could unmask others without being unmasked myself required me to be careful not to fall into any messaging patterns that might expose me, while simultaneously engaging others and remaining alert to the ways in which they might inadvertently reveal their true identities.
I loved these games and the alternative lives they let me live, though that love wasn’t quite as liberating for the other members of my family. I was spending so many hours playing Ultima that our phone bills were becoming exorbitant and no calls were getting through. My sister, now deep into her teen years, became furious when she found out that my online life had caused her to miss some crucial high-school gossip. However, it didn’t take her long to figure out that all she had to do to get her revenge was pick up the phone. The modem’s hiss would stop, and before she’d even received a normal dial tone, I’d be screaming my head off downstairs.
If you’re interrupted in the middle of, say, reading the news online, you can always go back and pick up wherever you left off. But if you’re interrupted while playing a game that you can’t pause or save—because a hundred thousand others are playing it at the same time—you’re ruined. You could be on top of the world, some legendary dragon-slayer with your own castle and an army, but after just thirty seconds of CONNECTION LOST you’d find yourself reconnecting to a bone-gray screen that bore a cruel epitaph: YOU ARE DEAD.
I’m embarrassed nowadays at how seriously I took all of this, but I can’t avoid the fact that I felt, at the time, as if my sister was intent on destroying my life—particularly on those occasions when she’d make sure to catch my eye from across the room and smile before picking up the downstairs receiver, not because she wanted to make a phone call but purely because she wanted to remind me who was boss. Our parents got so fed up with our shouting matches that they did something uncharacteristically indulgent. They switched our Internet billing plan from pay-by-the-minute to flat-fee unlimited access, and installed a second phone line.
Peace smiled upon our abode.
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The First Thing I Ever Hacked Was Bedtime.
Many of the first 2,000 or so nights of my life ended in civil disobedience: crying, begging, bargaining, until—on night 2,193, the night I turned six years old—I discovered direct action. The authorities weren’t interested in calls for reform, and I wasn’t born yesterday. I had just had one of the best days of my young life, complete with friends, a party, and even gifts, and I wasn’t about to let it end just because everyone else had to go home. So I went about covertly resetting all the clocks in the house by several hours. The microwave’s clock was easier than the stove’s to roll back, if only because it was easier to reach.
When the authorities—in their unlimited ignorance—failed to notice, I was mad with power, galloping laps around the living room. I, the master of time, would never again be sent to bed, was free. And so it was that I fell asleep on the floor, having finally seen the sunset on June 21, the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. When I awoke, the clocks in the house once again matched my father’s watch.