Dabe Alan

Edward Snowden, Ars, the NSA, and me: digging through the past of the gamer who changed the world

Edward Snowden, Ars, the NSA, and me: digging through the past of the gamer who changed the world

“Also interesting: Snowden interacted a lot with Ben Kuchera, way back.”

That tweet was sent while I was at E3, and of course the writer used my Twitter name, which meant I saw it. Twitter is weird that way, as long as someone uses your Twitter account’s name, you see every conversation about you, even if people aren’t talking to you. It's like the stinkier version of your palm itching if money is coming your way; you can see every argument and petty disagreement in which you're involved.

I was aware of Edward Snowden, the now-famous NSA technical worker who leaked documents revealing government mass surveilance programs to the press, through various news reports, but I hadn’t been following the story closely with E3 right around the corner.

It turns out that Snowden had been a prolific poster on the Ars Technica forums, the website that I had called home for a very long time. I recognized his user name, and I remember seeing his posts and chatting about games. News outlets, including Ars itself, began to comb through his forum posts to try to find out… something. To paint a more complete picture of a man who is being called either a traitor or a hero? To give us tidbits about his personal life, so we can peek into his past, like electronic voyeurs?

Snowden wanted to blow the whistle on the government snooping in our lives, but here we were going through his electronic past and reading through things he shared voluntarily, trying to piece together some idea of who he is. One reporter tried to get ahold of me via email, to ask if I had known him personally, and what I thought of him. I didn’t respond.

Our digital pasts are very much our digital present

Snowden was someone I knew online, one of the hundreds of people who made up my greater online community. I knew enough of him to enjoy his posts on Ars, and to follow his arguments with other forum personalities as they happened. He was part of the background at Ars, one of the many people who contributed to give the place its distinct character. I hadn't thought of him until he became a figure in the news, and even then I had no reason to connect his user name on Ars to the man I saw on CNN.

News outlets are republishing posts from Snowden that touch on security, or encryption, or his general feelings on politics. We’re viewing this inert look at his past through a very particular lens, as if everything he had done in his life up to this point was leading to the decision to leak documents.

That’s not how people work, although when someone does a singular, newsworthy thing we begin to look for the reason why. We put everything that has to do with that decision under the microscope, and we try to pick it apart, to search for a line that leads from point A to point B.

This is how I remember Edward Snowden. This is the post that stands out to me:

I don't know about you guys, but I'm pretty concerned about the current state of the genre. Every mass-market MMORPG since Everquest has been trying to capitalize on the levelling-treadmill cash cow, but no one is interested in innovating (except Planetside... remember, we're thinking mass-market here). When are we going to see MMORPGs with more ambition, like Ultima Online -originally- had?

Even the pre-beta games like Dragon Empires that start off with ambition are breaking down into race/class/level games.

Personally, I'd like to see more community-oriented games like those envisioned by .hack//SIGN (minus the virtual reality) and Ultima Online (tale in the desert with more breadth).

My dream would be a spellcasting system that uses the Black & White “mouse-drawing” input. That would be slick. Astromancy, anyone? (Look up and connect constellations!)

Unfortunately, part of releasing a mass-market game is making it attractive to Grandma and Retarded Jimmy. They can't follow along with “twitch” features, so they get passed over.

Also, I would like to see less levelling. I think this could be accomplished by having characters more or less “finished” upon creation. Adventuring would be more PvP, Item, or “reward” oriented. Overall, I think levels detract from the genre; they split up groups, put the pressure of “competition” on casual gamers, and generally make you feel FORCED into devoting play time into something you should view as a reward (gaming), not a chore.

Eh, I'm rambling.

That post was written on May 13, 2003. It’s just a few thoughts on games. That’s it. Snowden made over 773 posts to the Ars Technica forums, and the one I shared above has nothing to do with anything, really. That’s how we act on forums, especially before Twitter. They were often a place to scribble a few thoughts, to jot a quick message to whoever was reading. Rarely do we think of anything we saw as being a part of who we are, or a manifesto leading to further actions. It's a way to scream at the ocean, not to create a blueprint for our future selves.

Ars Technica Editor-in-Chief Ken Fisher defended the publication of an article that dug into Snowden’s posts, and it’s an interesting look at the thought process behind these stories.

This one is pretty obvious from my point of view, as biography is a mainstay of journalism, and here we have primary source material for the construction of biography. It is routine for historians (my technical academic training) and journalists to use biography to paint a deeper picture of a person. What is and is not relevant for understanding a person is really in the eye of the beholder. I think it would be ludicrous for me to get into a debate with someone about whether or not details of Snowden as a gamer are relevant. I want a three-dimensional picture of the man, and that includes these details.

It's not hard to put ourselves in Snowden's shoes. I've written 27,180 posts on the Ars Technica forums, and those posts span 13 years of posting and reading the forums. When Snowden's posts became “news” I started to think about over the posts I remember writing.

How would they look if I had shot someone? If I committed suicide? If I were to run for President? What clues would you find for each of those actions in the huge amount of data I left behind on that forum? What kind of person would you picture by going through them all? Will there ever be a situation where jokes I made when I was 18 become a headline on a big story?

I wrote some of those forum posts when I was drunk. Some were written when I was on top of the world, and others written in a deep depression. Did I sound like I hate the government? Have I changed my position on issues I argued passionately about? Are intelligence agents right now going through each and every one, deciding whether to listen to my phone calls?

What used to seem like paranoid science fiction now seems probable, if not likely. I'm proud of some of the posts on the forums, and I wince while reading others. None were written with the expectation of privacy.

So as reporters and friends on the forum sift through Snowden's online past, we should remember our own. Think about what your digital footprint says about you, and how people would interpret it depending on what you do today, or tomorrow, or a year from now. It's all out there, and some of it is easy for anyone to find. None of it is a complete picture of who you are, why you do certain things, or the person you may become.

Edward Snowden wasn’t a friend, but he wasn’t a stranger. It may irrational, but I feel bad for him, holed up in Hong Kong, away from his family and friends. It could be he was right to do what he did, or it could have been the wrong play. I don't have the answers, but a part of me wants to call and say hello, to ignore the rest of the news cycle for a few minutes, and talk about games.