05 Jul

Come at Me, NSA

Book Review: No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State by Glenn Greenwald

book cover

Book cover: No Place to Hide

No Place to Hide is the culmination of a year’s worth of work with Edward Snowden’s cache of NSA documents. The author, Glenn Greenwald, is perhaps best known for his articles in The Guardian documenting national security abuses and the NSA’s surveillance programs. No Place to Hide gives context to the whole event and speaks in detail to the NSA’s actions, the problems with mass surveillance, and the complicity of the media in the whole affair.

What the NSA is doing …

The first section of the book reads a bit like a thriller novel. Greenwald receives an anonymous message from someone promising a major scoop, but the source won’t share the information unless Greenwald sets up some complicated email encryption. Although Greenwald was interested, he did not follow up with the source. Later, Laura Poitras, friend to Greenwald and the other journalist involved in the Snowden leaks (by the way, they won a Pulitzer Prize for their work on this subject) encourages Greenwald to follow a lead that she has. The lead, of course, turns out to be from Snowden who was also the person trying to convince Greenwald to set up encryption Greenwald almost missed the most important story of the decade.

Both Greenwald and Poitras, along with another reporter from The Guardian (with which Greenwald was affiliated) to Hong Kong to meet Snowden. The set up for the meeting is elaborate—the reporters identify Snowden by looking for a man with a Rubik’s cube and exchange pass phrases. Eventually, they begin interviewing Snowden, barely beat The Washington Post to the story and have to leave Hong Kong in a hurry to avoid discovery.

I did want to hear more about the personal story of Snowden, Greenwald, and everyone else involved just because it seems like the kind of story that does not really happen in the modern world. Yet, it did happen. But No Place to Hide, while garnering the reader’s attention with this exciting tale, then turns to the real issue after this exciting introduction: NSA surveillance.

Greenwald reviews some of the major revelations from Snowden’s meticulously organized material. Snowden explained that one of the reasons he wanted to provide this information to a reporter, rather than dump it onto the internet, was that he wanted someone who could put the information in context and make it meaningful. I know that if I were to scan all the documents Snowden provided, I would not get a lot out of it. Fortunately, Greenwald helps readers understand the ecosystem of NSA surveillance, guiding the reader through some rather complex issues.

As usual, I do not want to summarize in any great detail because the book is available to those who want to read it. The overall theme that I took from Greenwald’s descriptions of the NSA’s programs was that the scope of these programs is much, much larger than the average person realizes. The goal of the NSA is literally to collect everything. That is not hyperbole. Greenwald includes slides from various training presentations in the book and the “gotta catch ’em all” attitude is prevalent. The NSA has multiple programs, plus collaborates with the other “Five Eyes” countries (the United States, England, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) to gather everything about everyone.

Metadata is one of the critical pieces of the NSA’s program. As someone with a degree in library science, I know what metadata is without asking. When we talk about phone records, metadata is information about when you make calls or send texts, who you call, and how long you stay on the phone. Most people dismiss metadata collection as a minor issue. Greenwald points out that, using metadata, an expert can get a strong sense of how you spend your time. An analyst could determine when you normally sleep, what religion you are (do you make a lot of phone calls on Christmas?), your social network, and a lot more. In fact, metadata can be more informative than the content of a call.

the exterior of the NSA headquarters in Maryland

NSA Headquarters

Another startling issue was what tools the NSA uses for surveillance. A lot of people heard about PRISM, the program that uses technology companies including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, and Facebook to collect people’s information. What I found more alarming was what the NSA does with hardware. Greenwald writes, “For years, the US government loudly warned the world that Chinese routers and other Internet devices post a ‘threat’ because they are built with backdoor surveillance functionality that gives the Chinese government the ability to spy on anyone using them. Yet what the NSA’s documents show is that Americans have been engaged in precisely the activity that the United States accused the Chinese of doing.” So, so much for quitting specific websites to avoid being spied on.

The reason all this is a problem, Greenwald explains, is that mass surveillance limits our freedoms. People behave differently when they know they are being watched. They self-censor, limiting possible choices because they know they need to behave within a certain range of social norms. This is problematic in fields such as the arts. If authors or film-makers are censored (like during the McCarthy Era Hollywood Blacklist), they don’t make things that they know will not be published or produced. They create works that are within the realm of social acceptability. People become afraid to speak out even if no one is being punished (yet). The fact that they are being observed and that there may be repercussions for deviant behavior is enough to stop people from creating dissident works or otherwise speaking out against the government.

Finally, Greenwald calls out the media, the “fourth estate,” for failing us. The main criticism is that the media has become a comfortable part of the political establishment. Reporters are no longer the outsiders they were in the mid-twentieth century. Greenwald describes the media as courtiers to the throne of American political power, “eager to defend the system that vests them with their privileges and contemptuous of anyone who challenges that system.” He also rails against so-called objectivity, which, for the media, is “nothing more than reflecting the biases and serving the interests of entrenched Washington. Opinions are problematic only when they deviate from the acceptable range of Washington orthodoxy.”

and what you can do about it

After reading No Place to Hide, I realized what is really insane about all of this: the scope of it. The fact that the NSA intercepts shipments of hardware like routers, outfits them with their spyware, then sends the shipments on their way. That is insane. Even if you delete your Facebook and stop using Skype, there is no way to get around someone snooping in your internet pipes unless you quit the internet entirely. And who would do that?

I don’t know what the answer is to all this, but I think that educating people on the issues of privacy, civil liberties, and surveillance is an important starting point. The fact that my boss thinks it is a good idea to say things to me along the lines of “I would rather be safe because of my children!” or the classic “It doesn’t bother me because I’m not doing anything wrong.”

a man dressed as Elvis talking to another man

A man impersonating a dangerous terrorist icon

Well, this bothers me because I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m not breaking the law. I’m not selling drugs or supporting terrorism (domestic or otherwise). The problem with mass surveillance is that whoever is doing the surveilling has the power to decide what is wrong. What if you read about anonymous? Elvis? Are tracking a package? Curious about satellite phones? You need to look at your life and look at your choices, you potential threat to national security! Those are all topics on the NSA’s list of words that flag you as a potential threat.

If you think it’s insane that your email discussions about encryption or the dictionary might be of interest to the NSA, you are not the only one. The site Hello, NSA generates keyword-rich phrases based on the NSA’s wordlist. In 2013, RedditGifts had an anonymous gift exchange called Now Sharing Absurdity – the NSA Gift Exchange, which encouraged participants to theme their gifts around subjects in the NSA word list.

I am glad that there are other people who find the NSA’s behavior ridiculous, but unfortunately, a lot of people with decision-making power are not among them. The secret FISA court has made this type of warrantless spying permissible. Greenwald writes that Snowden hoped that the Obama administration would “change the excessive abuses of national security that had been justified by the War on Terror … ‘but then it became clear that Obama was not just continuing, but in many cases expanding these abuses.’”

Right now the only method that seems like it will be effective in curbing these “abuses of national security” is putting pressure on legislators to make changes and voting for people who are not committed to the status quo. One positive outcome is that the House of Representatives voted in support of an amendment that would “prevent intelligence agencies from using the funds to force software companies to build back doors into their products,” according to an article in The Daily Beast.

I wish I had more ideas for how to do something, but I do not. My biggest advice is to vote. Don’t just vote for anyone, but cast an educated vote. Follow organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which works to defend civil liberties in digital space. Educate yourself and don’t be afraid of having an unpopular opinion if your opinion is based on the facts. Edward Snowden said that his biggest concern with leaking his trove of NSA documents would be that no one would react and nothing would change. The least we can do is read up on the issue and move forward with our eyes open.

What to read next:

  • I started working my way through the original articles that Greenwald wrote for The Guardian about the Snowden leaks. I did not read many of them as they were coming out; most of my news on the subject came from Democracy Now. I am interested in seeing the progression of the leaks. Also, Greenwald is not done yet, there is at least one more major article set to release soon, as of this writing. Greenwald is now writing on a site called The Intercept.

  • When Greenwald and Laura Poitras met Snowden, they asked why he did what he did. Snowden cited the book The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell as one of his influences. I found this interesting because I had already checked it out from the library. Campbell wrote prolifically on comparative mythology and the role of myth in our culture. I enjoyed his book The Power of Myth, so this is definitely on my to-read list.