Monday, June 16, 2014
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“NO PLACE TO HIDE” by Glenn Greenwald (Hamish Hamilton / Penguin $NZ37)
I feel a little redundant telling you this story because, if you are the type of literate person who reads this blog, you are probably also the type of person who keeps up to date with major and important news stories – as opposed to the trivia stories that often dominate our evening news. So you will already know the outline of this story.
Nevertheless, here goes.
In mid-2013, just over a year ago, the American journalist and columnist Glenn Greenwald, who most often writes for the British Guardian, was contacted by an anonymous informant who said he had accessed and downloaded thousands of secret and confidential documents belonging to America’s NSA (National Security Agency). The informant said these documents collectively proved that the NSA was engaged in a massive spying programme upon millions of American citizens, who were not even suspected of any crimes. In effect, they showed that all electronic communications were routinely open to, and constantly read by, America’s main spy agency, without any of the judicial process of gaining a warrant for such surveillance.
From the quality of information he was sent, Greenwald came to trust his informant and finally agreed to meet him where he was hiding, in Hong Kong, and to report accurately on what the hacked messages revealed. Only as he was en route to their arranged rendezvous did he finally learn his informant’s name and identity. It was 29-year-old Edward Snowden, formerly a data analyst and security boffin working for various American government agencies.
After interviews with Snowden, establishing his bona fides and his motives, Greenwald and a fellow journalist duly reported in detail for the Guardian on what Snowden’s documents revealed. The story also featured for weeks on the front pages of other newspapers, and of course on-line and on television. Some media outlets reported as Greenwald did, emphasising the documents Snowden had leaked and what they said about this huge breach of trust by the American government. Others, however, chose at once to see Snowden as a spy and a traitor. This attitude subsequently became more shrill when Snowden, unable to get safe haven anywhere else, went to Russia, where he is still residing.
In terms of the sheer quantity of documents, Snowden’s revelations represent the largest single breach of American security yet known. For this reason, he is seen strictly through the eyes of partisanship – as either the ultimate benevolent “whistle-blower”, revealing a government’s covert attempts to control and spy on its own citizens; or as a man who should be tried for treason if ever he returns to the USA.
Superfluous to point out that No Place to Hide is strictly Greenwald’s version of the story, is partisan and is as much polemic as it is reportage. This in no way limits its value. After all, nobody – not even Snowden’s fiercest critics – doubts the authenticity of the material Snowden leaked. The story Greenwald makes from these documents is indeed shocking. No Place to Hide is, after all, given the subtitle Edward Snowden, the NSA and the Surveillance State, and it is this concept of the surveillance state that most concerns Greenwald.
The book’s five long chapter basically divide into three parts.
First, there is the narrative of Greenwald’s own contact with Snowden, which reads almost like a spy thriller - how Snowden first approached him anonymously; how Snowden taught him to encrypt everything before he would send documents to him, to ensure their communications were as secure as possible; how Greenwald agreed to meet Snowden in Hong Kong with only one other person as witness; the signs and codes they used to ensure privacy etc. etc. Greenwald gives impressions he formed Snowden, based solely on the documents he sent and before he had actually met him:
“In sixteen hours of barely interrupted reading, I managed to get through only a small fraction of the archive. But as the plane landed in Hong Kong I knew two things for certain. First, the source was highly sophisticated and politically astute, evident in his recognition of the significance of most of the documents. He was also highly rational. The way he chose, analysed and described most of the documents I now had in my possession proved that. Second, it would be very difficult to deny his status as a classic whistle-blower. If disclosing proof that top-level national security officials lied outright to Congress about domestic spying programmes doesn’t make one indisputably a whistle-blower, what does?” (p.31)
Meetings with Snowden reinforced this favourable impression, and it remains Greenwald’s attitude to Snowden throughout the book. Greenwald also learned to trust the way Snowden enforced security, which at first seemed excessive to him. He comments:
“Snowden said the US government has the capability to remotely activate cell phones and convert them into listening devices. So I knew that the technology existed but still chalked up [his] concerns to borderline paranoia. As it turned out, I was the one who was misguided. The government has used this tactic in criminal investigations for years.” (p.37)
The book’s second section is a systematic analysis of the accessed documents’ most damning revelations. Admittedly the writing here is sometimes a little technical, as Greenwald has to interpret some of the blur-words and codes the NSA uses to make its techniques sound more palatable.
Finally, in the book’s last two chapter, entitled “The Harm of Surveillance” and “The Fourth Estate”, Greenwald gives his ideas on how real privacy is in the process of being destroyed by the constant watch that his government keeps as it collects “meta-data” from the telephone calls, e-mails, Skype conferences etc. of millions of people who are not under any sort of criminal suspicion. This, he says, has been justified under the fear of “terrorism” ever since what Americans insist on calling “9/11”. But he says that its real purpose is to keep the populace docile and obedient by constant surveillance, and he compares it with Orwell’s “tele-screens” and Jeremy Bentham’s “Panopticon”. Incidentally, he also notes that the NSA routinely hacks into the private communications of the leaders of “friendly” countries. The documents Snowden passed on caused the German chancellor Angela Merkel to express her outrage when she learnt that the NSA read all her e-mails and logged all her phone calls.
Greenwald notes that the governments of four other countries have endorsed unconditionally the NSA’s electronic spying system and regularly feed information into it. Collectively they and the USA are the “Five Eyes”. He remarks: “The Five Eyes relationship is so close that member governments place the NSA’s desires above the privacy of their own citizens.” (p.122) The four other countries are, of course, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Greenwald is contemptuous of their governments’ lapdog attitudes, and tells tales of communications to the NSA from the Australian, Canadian and British governments to prove his point. (I looked hard, but I found no stories involving New Zealand).
Much to my own surprise, the author is also fairly contemptuous of some mainstream newspapers, which have generally been represented as belonging to the liberal-left. He scorns the Washington Post and the New York Times, for being too close to government sources and for too often adding mitigating clauses to exposes of government felonies in order to make government look better. He also accuses them of joining other outlets in a campaign of ad hominem vilification of Snowden, which was no more than a distraction from the gravity of the things that Snowden had revealed.
Where American party-politics are concerned, Greenwald is neutral. He asserts that both Republican President Bush and Democrat President Obama, and their representatives in Congress, have lied consistently about the reach of NSA’s surveillance, and he sees their pleas of national security as mere sham. He is also aware that Snowden’s revelations make the difference between America and more closed, less democratic societies, such as China and Russia, seem narrower than we once assumed. There is, in his version, much hypocrisy in the official American stance. He refers to a US government announcement to the effect that Chinese electronic devices should be shunned because they could easily be used for long-distance surveillance:
“Warning the world about Chinese surveillance could have been one of the motives behind the US government’s claims that Chinese devices cannot be trusted. But an equally important motive seems to have been preventing Chinese devices from supplanting American-made ones, which would have limited the NSA’s own reach. In other words, Chinese routers and servers represent not only economic competition but also surveillance competition: when someone buys a Chinese device instead of an American one, the NSA loses a crucial means of spying on a great many communication activities.” (p.151)
I sense, however, that Greenwald’s greatest wrath is reserved for those commercial companies which, while assuring their subscribers and users that they protect their privacy, have allowed themselves to be used by the NSA and its surveillance systems. Bear in mind that Microsoft, Yahoo, Twitter, Skype, Google, Outlook, Firefox and any e-mail or other electronic communication system you can name are all party to this.
“In late 2011, Microsoft purchased Skype, the Internet-based telephone and chat service with over 663 million registered users. At the time of its purchase, Microsoft assured users that ‘Skype is committed to respecting your privacy and the confidentiality of your personal data, traffic and communications content.’ But in fact, this data, too, was readily available to the government. By early 2013, there were multiple messages on the NSA system celebrating the agency’s steadily improving access to the communications of Skype users.” (pp.113-114)
Of the justifications offered, he further notes:
“ state authorities have been assisted in their assault on privacy by a chorus of Internet moguls – the government’s seemingly indispensible partners in surveillance. When Google CEO Eric Schmidt was asked in a 2009 interview about concerns over his company’s retention of user data, he infamously replied: ‘If you have something that you don’t want anyone else to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.’ With equal dismissiveness, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a 2010 interview that ‘people have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people’. Privacy in the digital age is no longer a ‘social norm’, he claimed, a notion that handily serves the interests of a tech company trading on personal information.” (p.170)
This last attitude reveals an even greater threat than the one posed by the NSA. Only time will tell how truly destructive this so-called “social norm” really is.
I can add little more to my comments on this book. After all, it is essentially a work of journalism, to be read mainly for what it says rather than for how it says it.
Footnote: One gripe. There are no endnotes or index to this book, which so badly needs them. A curt note at the end tells you that you can find them by going to Glenn Greenwald’s website. I know this dodge is increasingly used by publishers, but I still find it nothing more than an annoyance. If a factual book sets out to offer you certain data, then it should offer ALL that data.