Every now and again there comes a work – whether a book, a movie or something else – that is of such societal significance that it cannot and must not be overlooked. Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State is just such a work.
It’s not your typical “good read”. It’s not meant to entertain you. It’s meant to change you, and Greenwald certainly doesn’t waste his breath. It’s a chilling book about one of the most important revelations of our time, about its impact on your life, and – finally – a good answer to the question “why should I care?”
Truth and facts are vital in polarized times
Stating that Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA surveillance has created somewhat of a scandal is putting it mildly. The extent of the surveillance is tremendous, and the revelations have caused a huge controversy. Most people in Europe seem to view Snowden as a hero. In the US, several media corporations living a bit too close to the government have demonized Snowden and labeled him a traitor, with the result that Americans are significantly more divided in their view of Snowden.
In such polarized issues it’s paramount to uncover and clearly communicate the truth. This enables everyone to make up their own mind based on facts, and not misinformation or outright lies from the people and systems which stand to lose everything as a result of the truth. Unfortunately the media situation in the US today is a bit dire with respect to conveying the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, particularly in matters concerning leaks hurtful to the government. And with the US being a such big player in the world today, everyone everywhere should know a bit about the American media situation.
Enter Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State.
Glenn Greenwald is journalist and the person who originally worked with Snowden to publish the revelations in The Guardian. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say he knows Snowden better than anyone else who has been in contact with him during and after the revelations. Greenwald has a legal background and has won several journalistic awards, herein the Esso Award for Excellence in Reporting (the “Brazilian Pulitzer price”, so to speak).
If all this is fairly new to you, you should already be thinking “how do I know that this book conveys the truth and not just pro-Snowden or anti-American propaganda?” I hope you will find consolation in the following fact, which Greenwald is entirely open about: The ones doing the revealing – Greenwald and Snowden – stands to lose every bit of credibility on lies or overstatements. The book will be scrutinized by their opponents and every small mistake or untruth in their favor will backfire horribly. Moreover, the book is well documented and exemplified, and one of the chapters is written around many selected excerpts from the leaked documents. On the whole, the book appears highly credible.
Now for the summary. Let me walk you through the highlights of each of the book’s five chapters.
1. Contact / 2. Ten Days in Hong Kong
In the first two chapters of No Place to Hide, Greenwald relates the course of events from first contact with Snowden up to their first meeting in Hong Kong. We get a thorough glimpse into Snowden’s personality, earlier career and motives. Why did he choose to leave behind a highly privileged life and leak information which would surely effectively exile him? I mean, is he at all sane? The answer is, of course, a resounding “yes”, and I think everyone who has any doubts about Snowden as a person would do well to read this before making up their minds.
Greenwald then elaborates on the circumstances of the meeting and the road towards publishing the first leaks. It’s like reading a thriller, and that is quite scary in its own right since this is not merely based on a true story – it is a recounting of actual events. We also get a “teaser”, as it were, of the Obama administration’s relentless war against whistleblowers and investigative journalism, which is covered with all the gory details in the final chapter of the book.
3. Collect It All
The third chapter is in several ways both the least exciting and the most horrifying of the five. Greenwald provides a plethora of examples of PowerPoint-slides and excerpts from the Snowden revelations, and the chapter’s primary message is that NSA’s explicit goal was to capture absolutely all electronic communication:
Taken in its entirety, the Snowden archive led to an ultimately simple conclusion: the US government had built a system that has as its goal the complete elimination of electronic privacy worldwide. Far from hyperbole, that is the literal, explicitly stated aim of the surveillance state: to collect, store, monitor, and analyze all electronic communication by all people around the globe. The agency is devoted to one overarching mission: to prevent the slightest piece of electronic communication from evading its systemic grasp.
It sounds like an overstatement – something you’d say off record at a party. But Greenwald immediately follows up with excerpts from the leaked documents indicating that this is in fact, more or less verbatim, NSA’s goal. He provides several examples, such as NSA’s project on capturing communications onboard airplanes:
Both the NSA and GCHQ have been consumed by their perceived need to monitor Internet and phone communications of people on commercial airline flights. Because these are rerouted via independent satellite systems, they are extremely difficult to pinpoint. The idea that there is a moment when someone can use the Internet or their phone without detection— even for just a few hours while flying— is intolerable to the surveillance agencies. In response, they have devoted substantial resources to developing systems that will intercept in-flight communications.
Sceptical? Again, he proceeds to show no less than seven leaked slides where this project is detailed.
4. The Harm of Surveillance
A very important part of No Place to Hide, we finally get a whole chapter on the importance of privacy. Greenwald references and summarizes several studies which clearly show that we make different choices when we know we are under surveillance, and he elaborates on what this means for us:
To begin with, people radically change their behavior when they know they are being watched. They will strive to do that which is expected of them. They want to avoid shame and condemnation. They do so by adhering tightly to accepted social practices, by staying within imposed boundaries, avoiding action that might be seen as deviant or abnormal.
Mass surveillance by the state is therefore inherently repressive, even in the unlikely case that it is not abused by vindictive officials to do things like gain private information about political opponents. Regardless of how surveillance is used or abused, the limits it imposes on freedom are intrinsic to its existence.
Greenwald also delves into history. He relates how surveillance in the US has been a thing since the days of the telegraph, and insinuates that surveillance is likely not limited to the US. He presents several recent examples of people with dissenting political opinions being kept under surveillance, and shows how the authorities have considered using compromising information to undermine their authority and reputation (this is of course documented, as everything else):
One document from the Snowden files, dated October 3, 2012, chillingly underscores the point. It revealed that the agency has been monitoring the online activities of individuals it believes express “radical” ideas and who have a “radicalizing” influence on others. The memo discusses six individuals in particular, all Muslims, though it stresses that they are merely “exemplars.”
The NSA explicitly states that none of the targeted individuals is a member of a terrorist organization or involved in any terror plots. Instead, their crime is the views they express, which are deemed “radical,” a term that warrants pervasive surveillance and destructive campaigns to “exploit vulnerabilities.”
Among the information collected about the individuals, at least one of whom is a “U.S. person,” are details of their online sex activities and “online promiscuity”— the porn sites they visit and surreptitious sex chats with women who are not their wives. The agency discusses ways to exploit this information to destroy their reputations and credibility.
The following paragraph is a summary of the grand scale of why privacy matters:
All of the evidence highlights the implicit bargain that is offered to citizens: pose no challenge and you have nothing to worry about. Mind your own business, and support or at least tolerate what we do, and you’ll be fine. Put differently, you must refrain from provoking the authority that wields surveillance powers if you wish to be deemed free of wrongdoing . This is a deal that invites passivity, obedience, and conformity. The safest course, the way to ensure being “left alone,” is to remain quiet, unthreatening, and compliant.
In this chapter, Greenwald also shows examples of the NSA far outreaching their mandate by performing democratic and economic spying to provide the US with a competitive advantage in areas like economy and political negotiations.
5. The Fourth Estate
In the final chapter of No Place to Hide Greenwald really delves into the state of US media. It’s horrifying in its own right that there is an unwritten rule that all leaks are first internally discussed with Washington, whereupon the actual leaks are smeared together with Washington’s statements on the matter, resulting in muddled or downright inconsequential stories. I’ll let Greenwald explain:
Then there’s the tone that establishment media outlets use to discuss government wrongdoing. The culture of US journalism mandates that reporters avoid any clear or declarative statements and incorporate government assertions into their reporting, treating them with respect no matter how frivolous they are. They use what the [Washington] Post’s own media columnist, Erik Wemple, derides as middle-of-the-road-ese: never saying anything definitive but instead vesting with equal credence the government’s defenses and the actual facts, all of which has the effect of diluting revelations to a muddled, incoherent, often inconsequential mess. Above all else, they invariably give great weight to official claims, even when those claims are patently false or deceitful.
Even worse than this is the fact that several media corporations, instead of being the watchdogs they to be, directly supports Washington:
One of the principal institutions ostensibly devoted to monitoring and checking abuse of state power is the political media. The theory of a “fourth estate” is to ensure government transparency and provide a check on overreach, of which the secret surveillance of entire populations is surely among the most radical examples. But that check is only effective if journalists act adversarially to those who wield political power. Instead, the US media has frequently abdicated this role, being subservient to the government’s interests, even amplifying, rather than scrutinizing, its messages and carrying out its dirty work.
Perhaps you’re thinking right now that this book sounds almost conspiratoric. It’s surely as horrifying as your run-of-the-mill conspiracy theory (if conspiracy theories were true), and this is “just” investigative journalism, not rigorous peer-reviewed science. However, the claims are well documented and exemplified, and given everything the leaks have revealed I have no problems with trusting No Place to Hide. I’m not saying this is the definitive, end-all story of everything related to the Snowden revelations, but keep in mind that the book is written by one who stands to lose everything on untruths and excaggerations.
No Place to Hide is a credible book on one of the most important revelations of our time, written by the man who, more so than Snowden himself, was in the middle of the storm. I sincerely hope you’ll take the time to read it and reflect on it.