Tuesday, 10 June 2014

No Place To Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the surveillance state

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Glenn Greenwald’s book, No Place To Hide is more than just the story of the Edward Snowden leaks. It’s a description of how we are giving up freedom we don’t know we have in the name of security we don’t actually need.

Glenn Greenwald is a very good writer, a tenacious journalist, and, though I'm loathe to hyperbolise, a crusader for freedom. His early career as a constitutional and civil rights lawyer informed his respect for liberty and suspicion of those in power, private and public.

But he's no spy.

No Place To Hide's first chapter is called Contact, and opens with “On December 1, 2012, I received my first communication from Edward Snowden, although I had no idea at the time it was from him.”

Then follows a description of what must have been an agonising couple of months for Snowden, as he made surreptitious email contact (using the pseudonym “Cincinattus”) with Greenwald, imploring him to install PGP (a sophisticated cryptography tool for emails), promising a huge story. Without PGP, Cincinattus could not and would not reveal the nature of his story, but without the promise of something worthwhile, Greenwald was not ready to invest the time. Too busy and not tech-literate enough to set himself up with PGP, Greenwald let the matter slide.

In April 2013, Greenwald was contacted by documentary maker Laura Poitras, and the tale of The NSA Leaks begins. There's an interesting side-story about The Guardian's early fears of going to press with the first couple of stories based on Snowden's leaks, and the initial competition between it and The Washington Post. And there's a fair bit of cloak and dagger as Snowden, holed up in his Hong Kong hotel room, arranges meetings with Greenwald and Poitras and explains just how pervasive surveillance is - mobile phones must be switched off and put in the freezer, for instance.

Some months into his collaboration with Snowden, having installed PGP, Greenwald eventually replied to the mysterious Cincinattus, only to hear Snowden yell from the other room that he was Cincinattus. So much for joining those dots...

But this book is not so much about the leaks, or how they became public, as it is about what the existence of the NSA's “collect it all” business model really means and what its becoming public has revealed about government, surveillance, and establishment-friendly media.

Snowden, having worked for the NSA and CIA directly and as a contractor, knew not only how our lives were being collected and analysed, but why: in Greenwald's words, “a citizenry that is aware of always being watched quickly becomes a compliant and fearful one.”

From that knowledge Snowden predicted exactly what would happen, how he (and Greenwald) would be attacked, what arguments would be used to discredit him and to distract from the raw, ugly truth that we are all, always, being watched.

Snowden's decision to go into hiding, for instance, wasn't just about his personal safety - it was also, as much as possible, to keep the documents at the centre of the story. He knew that if he stayed in the open, then The Hunt For Edward Snowden would become the focus (as it did in the circus that played out in Moscow airport for a while), and that that had to be avoided, or at least minimised.

Still, he and Greenwald have been described as traitors, terrorists, spies, unstable. There have been calls for their arrest and extra-judicial assassination, and even the ludicrous charge that Greenwald has been, as the recipient of remuneration from The Guardian and elsewhere for his stories, “selling state secrets”.

There have also been the consistent claims, by the US and other governments (including ours), that Snowden's leaks have assisted terrorists by revealing the methods of the NSA and other organs of the security state around the world. This is just nonsense. For one thing, there is no evidence to support this claim: the NSA and CIA have not been able to point to one terrorist operation that was shut down by their meta-data collection, or even where the collection assisted. And the Boston Marathon bombing still happened, as have dozens of mass shootings in the US.

But also from a common sense angle, the argument doesn't hold up: terrorists and criminals know that their phones and emails and probably their cars and homes and friends and families are under surveillance, and they already take steps to avoid it. The reaction in the caves of Tora Bora and the streets of Yemen that the NSA is collecting phone and email traffic wouldn't have been much more than “well, der!

The most alarming and depressing observations in No Place To Hide come not from the confirmation that Your Government Are Bastards Who Spy On You, but on the role that establishment media play in supporting the Bastards.

Some of Snowden's and Greenwald's most vicious criticism has come from other journalists, and exposes those journalists' attachment to government. On the talk show Meet The Press, Greenwald referred to a top secret judicial ruling from the top-secret FISA court, which deemed “substantial parts of the NSA's domestic surveillance program unconstitutional...”

Host David Gregory argued with Greenwald that the ruling didn't say that, but “based on people I've talked to, that the FISA opinion based on the government's request is that they said....”

Moments later, Gregory “raised the spectre of arrest for [Greenwald's] reporting”. But Gregory had just referred to the same top secret document, which had obviously been shown to, and analysed for him by the government. He had just broadcast what he knew to be Top Secret information, but because it had been given to him in the understanding that he would push the government line, there was no wrong committed in his, or the government's mind.

Indeed, Gregory would likely be incapable of understanding that his disclosure and mine were even comparable, since his came at the behest of a government seeking to defend and justify its actions, while mine was done adversarially, against the wishes of officialdom.

Greenwald gives many more examples of MSM duplicity and complicity in the US and elsewhere. It's our own Canberra Press Gallery circle-jerk of drip-fed leaks and co-dependent relationships writ large and far more dangerous.

For all its revelations and opinions, No Place To Hide can be summed up in a couple of paragraphs from Chapter 4:

But the true measure of a society's freedom is how it treats its dissidents and other marginalised groups, not how it treats good loyalists.

We shouldn't have to be faithful loyalists of the powerful to feel safe from state surveillance. Not should the price of immunity be refraining from controversial or provocative dissent. We shouldn't want a society where the message is conveyed that you will be left alone only if you mimic the accommodating behaviour and conventional wisdom of an establishment columnist.

Buy this book.


Justin Shaw

Follow Justin on Twitter: @JuzzyTribune