‘There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and except in darkness, every movement scrutinised.’
- George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty Four
No Place To Hide has got to be one of the most engaging, revealing and worrying books I’ve read in a long time and this quote from Orwell’s dystopian classic perfectly encapsulates the warning that Glenn Greenwald is trying to portray.
Contact & 10 Days in Hong Kong
The first two chapters of this book read like something picked straight out of a spy novel. It describes first hand Greenwald’s experiences, from his initial contact with an anonymous source named Cincinnatus (later found out to be Snowden), through his various meetings and discussions with filmmaker Laura Poitras (director of Citizenfour), to the full details of the 10 days he spent in a Hong Kong hotel with Edward Snowden during the course of the leaks.
These chapters essentially cover the personal side of the Snowden story; they lay out in detail the motivations behind Snowden’s decision to become the most wanted whistleblower in US history. Through interviews and personal chats with Greenwald and Poitras we get to understand the mindset of a man who risked everything for the sake of his values; who put his life on the line to expose what he saw as a vast and unaccountable abuse of power by a government who supposedly puts liberty at the forefront of their constitutional rights. Snowden, when quizzed by Greenwald on whether he knew the extent of the danger he was getting himself into, he replied pertinently: ‘The true measure of a person’s worth isn’t what they say they believe in, but what they do in defense of those beliefs … If you’re not acting on your beliefs, then they probably aren’t real.’
Greenwald also describes the issues he faced in trying to get Snowden’s documents published. Finding a reputable news source who was willing to publish the stories in spite of government pressure not to do so was a constant battle, there were even points when The Guardian was afraid that it’s HQ would be shut down by the FBI/GCHQ. Equally worrying was that even in their secure hotel room on the other side of the world, Greenwald and Snowden became increasingly more aware that they were potentially being monitored – all of their hard work was resting on a knife edge. All of this makes for fascinating reading. Greenwald does a great job at building up the suspense which makes the first few chapters read more like a fiction book than a political expose. I don’t think I’ve ever read a piece of non-fiction that was quite such a page turner.
Collect It All
The third chapter, dubbed Collect It All (the NSA’s own phrase), extensively outlines the extent of the NSA’s spying ability through an analysis of some of the leaked documents received from Snowden. Greenwald goes into detail about a variety of NSA and GCHQ surveillance programs and some of the documents he shows us us truly staggering: ‘Far from being a frivolous quip, “collect it all” defines the NSA’s aspiration, and it is a goal the NSA is increasingly closer to reaching … As of mid-2012 the agency was processing more than 20 billion communications events (both internet and telephone) each day’. But how exactly does the NSA go about collecting such a huge amount of data? Greenwald tries to answer any questions one might have when reading these documents, as he summarises:
‘To collect such vast quantities of communications, the NSA relies on a multitude of methods. These include tapping directly into fiber-optic lines (including underwater cables) used to transmit international communications; redirecting messages into NSA repositories …; and cooperating with intelligence services in other countries. With increasing frequency, the agency also relies on internet companies and telecoms, which indispensably pass on information they have collected about their own customers’.
The scope of these programs is is absolutely huge. For example, the Boundless Informant program which shows that ‘the NSA counts all the telephone calls and emails collected every day from around the world with mathematical exactitude’. To PRISM, a program ‘which detailed secret agreements between the NSA and the world’s largest internet companies – Facebook, Yahoo, Apple, Google – as well as extensive efforts by Microsoft to provide the agency with access to its communications platforms such as Outlook.’ In fact the existence of these programs had previously been categorically denied by NSA chief Keith Alexander. Alexander and others had even repeatedly lied to congress saying that it was impossible for them to quantify the number of phone calls or emails they collected, but as the documents provided by Greenwald here show, this was completely false.
The Harm of Surveillance
However, aside from the bare facts, in No Place To Hide Greenwald really wants to address why the Snowden leaks were so important. Oftentimes, when considering these issues, the question will arise: why should I worry about the government collecting information on me if I have nothing to hide? Greenwald provides a variety of examples. He argues that we cannot dismiss the importance of privacy when we all put passwords on our email and social media accounts; locks on our bathroom doors; and we tell things to our friends; our psychologists; our doctors; our lawyers that we would not want anyone else to know. But perhaps more importantly is the fact that only when we believe that nobody else is watching us do we feel free to explore new ways of thinking, and to explore what it means to be ourselves:
‘What is lost when the private realm is abolished are many of the attributes typically associated with quality of life. Most people have experienced how privacy enables liberation from constraint. And we’ve all, conversely, had the experience of engaging in private behaviour when we thought we were alone – dancing, confessing, exploring sexual expression, sharing untested ideas – only to feel shame at having been seen by others.’
The problem of privacy then, as the quote from Orwell at the top of this article demonstrates, is a problem of control. We see in Nineteen Eighty Four that what makes a surveillance system effective in controlling human behaviour is the knowledge that when one’s words and actions are susceptible to monitoring this causes us to change the way we act. Drawing on the idea of the panopticon described by philosophers Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault, Greenwald argues that the constant threat of surveillance is enough to limit our behaviour; it is enough to lead us into a state of ‘compliance, obedience, and conformity with expectations’ in which citizens ‘would act is if they were always being watched, even if they weren’t’. The method of control thus becomes internalised within the individual; the mere threat of surveillance is enough to repress the ideas that are on the boundaries of the social norm, an idea that Foucault saw as particularly problematic. As Foucault himself states:
‘the external power may throw off its physical weight; it tends to be non-corporal; and, the more it approaches this limit, the more constant, profound, and permanent are its effects: it is a profound victory that avoids any physical confrontation and which is always decided in advance.’
The biggest problem then, for both Foucault and Greenwald, is that the threat surveillance inevitably leads to self-censorship thus taking away the individual’s liberty to dissent from political homogeneity. Greenwald gives a variety of historical examples, reports and studies that outline this concern and goes into great detail to outline the personal attacks of both GCHQ and the NSA on individual dissenters such as Julian Assange, members of the hacktivist collective Anonymous, and even journalists (Greenwald’s own partner had been held at a UK airport on suspicion of being associated with terrorists i.e. Greenwald) which he expands on more in the next chapter.
The Fourth Estate
The final chapter goes into great detail about the various portrayals of Greenwald and Snowden in the media following the leaks. Greenwald analyses the smear campaigns used by ‘surveillance cheerleaders’ to undermine the importance of actual leaks themselves in favour of sensationalising both Greenwald and Snowden’s personalities. Greenwald was repeatedly referred to as an ‘activist’ instead of a ‘journalist’ by much of the press, something that would remove the remove the constitutional protection allowed to him by the first amendment, and Snowden himself had been dismissed by many top newspapers such as the New York Times as a ‘fame seeking narcissist’, ‘a loser’ and ‘coward’ because ‘he dropped out of high school’.
Even more striking is the comparison of these smear campaigns with those of other whistleblowers: both Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning had been frequently referred to in the news as mentally unstable implying that their decision to leak secret government documents would be overlooked as the radical actions of the mentally ill instead of as important and informed political decisions. Assange in particular faced one of the most absurd and damning descriptions:
‘[Assange is] disheveled, like a bag lady walking in off the street, wearing a dingy light-colored sport coat and cargo pants, dirty white shirt, beat-up sneakers and filthy white socks that collapsed around his ankles. He smelled as if he hadn’t bathed in days’
This aggravated and blatant defamation is another thing that Michel Foucault addresses in his book Madness and Civilisation. The treatment of political dissenters as insane has a long varied history in the institutionalisation of power, and this is something that is made evident by Greenwald’s expose.
Greenwald states that ‘the idea of a “fourth estate” is that those who exercise the greatest power need to be challenged by adversarial pushback and an insistence on transparency; the job of the press is to disprove the falsehoods that power invariably disseminates to protect itself.’ Without this type of journalism, abuse of power becomes an inevitability, and this is the reason we see so many journalists are jailed and punished in authoritarian regimes across the world. The attempted defamation of Snowden, Manning, Assange and Greenwald is proof that much of the political press in the US has forgotten one of it’s most vital roles.
Finally, in perhaps one of the most blatant displays of government censorship on the fourth estate, is the fact that GCHQ, after several stories had been published based on the leaked documents, had physically sent agents to The Guardian’s London headquarters to threaten the newspaper and destroy the laptops containing the remaining documents they had. The lack of a codified constitution in the UK means that the rights of press are not quite as vehemently defended as they are in the US, it is easier for the courts to overrule a constitutional right if it is the governments interests. In other words, as Snowden has previously stated, the UK is one of the countries with the biggest threat on privacy and civil liberties in the English speaking world today. Luckily the Guardian still had a copy of the documents in their New York office meaning that continued publication was still possible, even with the constant threats from both the UK and US government.
The question at the end of the book arises: how much has actually changed? Snowden’s biggest fear when he released these documents was that people would simply be indifferent or apathetic towards the information, meaning he himself would have risked his life and liberty for a hopeless cause. Indeed, in an article I wrote a few months ago after watching Citizenfour, I was alarmed at the idea that minimal improvements had been made and the lack of general outrage amongst the public, but after reading this book and seeing the reported changes in court rulings which could lead to a change of government policy in the UK, I have to say I’m hopeful about the future. Snowden’s leaks have led to a worldwide debate on the importance of privacy, and the level to which we are happy to accept government erosion of our civil liberties. Slowly but surely changes are being made.
So to conclude, what Snowden may have done is steered us from away from the bleak Orwellian future described in the quote above. There’s no doubt that the Snowden leaks were as Guardian journalist Henry Porter stated ‘one of the most impressive journalistic operations I have ever seen’ and what Greenwald has accomplished with this book is to provide a fascinating and extremely compelling piece of work documenting what could go down in history as one of the defining moments of the early 21st century. I strongly recommend everyone to read it!