Before he became the early 21st century’s most important whistle-blower, Edward Snowden “was politically conservative, a gun owner, a geek,” writes Luke Harding in his new book, “The Snowden Files.”
In late December 2001, someone calling themselves TheTrueHOOHA had a question. He was an 18-year-old American male with impressive IT skills and a sharp intelligence. His real identity was unknown. Everyone who posted on Ars Technica, a popular technology website, did so anonymously.
TheTrueHOOHA wanted to set up his own web server. It was a Saturday morning, a little after 11am. He posted: “It’s my first time. Be gentle. Here’s my dilemma: I want to be my own host. What do I need?”
Soon, regular users were piling in with helpful suggestions. TheTrueHOOHA replied: “Ah, the vast treasury of geek knowledge that is Ars.” He would become a prolific contributor; over the next eight years, he authored nearly 800 comments. He described himself variously as “unemployed”, a failed soldier, a “systems editor”, and someone who had US State Department security clearance.
His home was on the east coast of America in the state of Maryland, near Washington DC. But by his mid-20s he was already an international man of mystery. He popped up in Europe – in Geneva, London, Ireland, Italy and Bosnia. He travelled to India. Despite having no degree, he knew an astonishing amount about computers. His politics appeared staunchly Republican. He believed strongly in personal liberty, defending, for example, Australians who farmed cannabis plants.
At times he could be rather obnoxious. He called one fellow-Arsian, for example, a “cock”; others who disagreed with his sink-or-swim views on social security were “fucking retards”.
His chat logs cover a colourful array of themes: gaming, girls, sex, Japan, the stock market, his disastrous stint in the US army, his negative impressions of multiracial Britain (he was shocked by the number of “Muslims” in east London and wrote, “I thought I had gotten off of the plane in the wrong country… it was terrifying”), the joys of gun ownership (“I have a Walther P22. It’s my only gun but I love it to death,” he wrote in 2006). In their own way, the logs form a Bildungsroman.
Then, in 2009, the entries fizzle away. In February 2010, TheTrueHOOHA mentions a thing that troubles him: pervasive government surveillance. “Society really seems to have developed an unquestioning obedience towards spooky types… Did we get to where we are today via a slippery slope that was entirely within our control to stop? Or was it a relatively instantaneous sea change that sneaked in undetected because of pervasive government secrecy?”