Book review: “Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs” about your right to privacy

Kerry Howley’s new book “Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs” tells the story of whistleblowing in America. It’s wild and funny. But it’s also serious in showing us how lazy we’ve become when it comes to dealing with the bottomless digital ocean.

We all leave traces online. Somewhere there’s a record of something – that’s a given. More data has been created and stored since the year 2000 than in the entire previous course of humanity.

Some of us think that we can minimize our digital footprint if only we make an effort to scrutinize the privacy settings – as if our clicks, pics, and videos are actually really private.

Others do worry, of course. These include individual privacy activists and larger organizations defending causes such as end-to-end encryption or the use of Tor browser, probably the best way to avoid surveillance, but also a pretty sharp signal that something’s up to the ones who surveil.

“We kill people based on metadata”

However, the absolute majority of us are simply too lazy to do anything, too lazy to even think about doing anything. Yeah, the government will probably use the vast cache of signals I’m leaving online against me if it so decides – but maybe the time will never come because I’m one of the good ones, right?

In a way, this is quite rational – the human brain is a marvelous thing, but there’s only so much information it can organize. We’ve got enough on our plates. We pay taxes, we’ve got depression, and we’re behind in chores forever. But we’re also naive.

“It’s best to just take another photograph. Keep building up the database. Throw it into the cloud, whatever that is. It’s slightly stressful to know that one’s personal database is bloated and disorganized, but you can’t see my cloud. It’s my burden to bear, my weight to carry; luckily, since I’m small, it’s only a cloud,” Howley writes.

Well, what if the time – and the Feds – actually comes? In short, you’re in trouble then, and not only because you might have done something terribly wrong, says Howley, who is a writer for New York magazine.

The problem is distinguishing the signals from the noise – and the US intelligence agencies aren’t very good at it. Yes, they absorb and stash absolutely everything, but we would find it hard to recognize our true selves in the portraits of us they then build.

The consequences of constantly mistaking accumulated information for knowledge can be, and are, dire. In the US, people’s careers might suffer, and Howley is terrific in telling us about them, but elsewhere, people lose their lives.

“It isn’t until months or years later that you realize that the entire time you thought you were going after this really hot target, you wind up realizing it was his mother’s phone the whole time,”

Daniel Hale.

“We kill people based on metadata,” a former Central Intelligence Agency director, Michael Hayden, once said. Howley has something to add: it’s true, but, unfortunately, they're often the wrong people.

Daniel Hale, a whistleblower who leaked the Drone Papers that detailed the US military’s assassination programs in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia to The Intercept in 2015, described to the same outlet how tracking the targets’ cell phones isn’t actually smart.

“It isn’t until months or years later that you realize that the entire time you thought you were going after this really hot target, you wind up realizing it was his mother’s phone the whole time,” said Hale, who was of course caught by the FBI and sent to prison.

In a yearlong mission in Afghanistan, 200 people were killed by drones, but only 35 of them had been the intended target.

Your past is indelible

This, and more, is, of course, outrageous. It should be condemned. But Howley somehow floats above these dark pages of America’s war on terror and even manages to sound funny at times. Darkly funny, to be clear.

It’s probably because American crimes home and abroad aren’t the real story specifically in this book. There are loads of other works patiently explaining fundamental problems in the US national security state.

No, the main story – I think – is Howley’s attempt to show us a world “that had forgotten what it was like to construct a self in the dark.”

Humans constantly change and discard their past in order to forget it and move on – but now our pasts stay recorded somewhere for good. What’s more – and worse – these lives can be reconstructed by the state so that you wouldn’t recognize yourself.

That’s, in essence, what happened to Reality Winner (this is a real name, let’s move on), who is the central figure of the book onto which a series of the book’s other themes converge.

Reality Winner.

Reality joined the Air Force at 18, becoming a linguist who spoke Dari and Pashto. She later worked as a contractor for the National Security Agency and, in 2017, was arrested for mailing five printed pages of classified information to The Intercept that detailed Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 US presidential elections.

She was later sentenced to 63 months in prison. This was “the longest sentence ever handed down for an Espionage Act conviction,” even though if Edward Snowden were ever to be returned to the US, the record would undoubtedly be broken.

Snowden, of course, is another important figure here. I've always been quite skeptical about Snowden, especially because he’s now based in Russia, where the government actually does whatever it wants with its citizens, lately sending young men to die in a war on Ukraine.

But Howley is right when she points out that Snowden – if he wanted to remain free – had almost no choice. Russia, America’s adversary, is one of the few countries that would most probably refuse to extradite a US citizen asking for asylum.

What Snowden – US intelligence and military officials have anonymously expressed a wish to get rid of him in 2014 – disclosed was extraordinary, and Howley demonstrates her soft shock at the revelations.

“Snowden revealed that Google, Facebook, AOL, and others were knowingly funneling their users’ data straight to the NSA; they unlocked the doors to loud rooms full of racks and wire so the NSA could come in and install equipment with which to spy,” writes Howley.

“The NSA could record live audio, live video, live chat. It could watch you type search terms into Google. It could monitor, if it chose, your very keystrokes. In theory, the NSA was not allowed to spy on the citizens who paid taxes to fund it, but in practice, in targeting foreigners, it amassed endless data on Americans.”

Good leakers and bad leakers

The trial of Winner clearly demonstrated America was already living in a post-privacy era. Remember, she decided to leak when Donald Trump – whom she called “orange fascist” – was in power when the word “collusion” was in vogue.

One could argue that this progressive young lady who spent sleepless nights worrying about the state of democracy in the US, global warming, and the people of Aleppo in Syria only wanted to help the country at a time when Trump wasn’t exactly projecting maturity.

The five pages she leaked were mysteriously classified, but Reality saw and thought this was evidence that the Kremlin really was interfering with electoral processes in the US. Why couldn’t this be public?

Yes, leaking secret documents is technically a crime, but government officials do it all the time – The New York Times is full of such information. But, of course, it’s not a big deal if the government actually initiates the leak.

Reality’s case was different. And because she was active online, once again, thinking of the internet as a kind of a stranger who doesn’t care about you, the state collected everything she did digitally. “And if it can be collected, it can be subpoenaed,” writes Howley.

The FBI sent demands to Facebook and Instagram, called upon Google and Twitter, it contacted Dropbox, from which it demanded everything in Reality’s account along with anything she had deleted. It scraped Reality’s phone, username, and credit card numbers.

All that was used during the trial to show that Winner – recruited by the American government – was allegedly acting as an enemy of the American government.

Fragmented data about Winner’s life collected online was built into a coherent story of bad intentions. Howley calls this a “fantasy built on solid ground” because “all the electrons in a data center will not, on their own, tell a single story.”

It’s actually fine to distrust the government. It’s healthy. Do not be afraid to look – most of us are good at not looking, and most of us are bad at confronting the nature of reality.

Whistleblowers are sometimes called – and act like – crazy moral narcissists. But Howley, in her, funnily enough, unclassifiable book, is right in pointing out that they’re crazy in the same way it would have been crazy to assume that the local doctor in Pakistan giving out free hepatitis vaccines to poor children was part of the CIA plot to find Osama bin Laden.

Whistleblowers and dissidents are delusional in the same way it would’ve been delusional in the 1960s to assume that the sex worker would slip you LSD, after which CIA agents would watch you behind a one-way mirror, hoping to learn resistance to Soviet mind control.

That all happened. The stories are unhinged, and they are true. Snowden, Winner, even Julian Assange – they surely are annoying to the US government. But they’re also very, very bad at not looking and deserve the benefit of the doubt.