No Place To Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the U.S. Surveillance State
by Glenn Greenwald
Random House Canada
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for an honest review.
I don’t usually tell people they need to read a book. I do so in the hyperbolic sense when you connect to a story so strongly and completely that you “need” others to witness what you’ve experienced to validate that it indeed exists. I haven’t, in sincerity and in earnest, urged people to read a book. Glenn Greenwald’s book, No Place To Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the U.S. Surveillance State, is a book I truly believe everyone should and must read. Not just Americans but everyone single individual on this planet who has the privilege and opportunity to do so.
June 2013 was when the American people – and the world – found out about the National Security Agency’s invasive spying program and the man who leaked those classified documents: Edward Snowden. Greenwald – along with Laura Poitras and the support of The Guardian – broke the biggest story on mass surveillance and the ripple effects of that revelation can still be felt a year later. The book explores various themes that all connect with the overarching argument that mass surveillance will always lead to the infringement of civil liberties and doesn’t guarantee the security it promises. To guarantee security through surveillance cameras or, as stated in the leaked NSA documents, collecting phone records and emails, is problematic since the lack of privacy that these surveillance measures create only make the people it was meant to secure feel insecure. In the case of the NSA, the quest for security is focused inward at the citizens of the United States. The same tools used to determine security threats are (and were thanks to the historical context that Greenwald provided in the book) used to determine those who oppose the institutions which allow for a dangerous climate in a society that needs dissenting voices in order for a democracy to thrive. This targeting of the opposition, minorities, and the vulnerable were what inspired Project Insight featured in Captain America: The Winter Soldier where, in the wrong hands, the program is used to target those who would become a threat (i.e. Iron Man) to higher institutions. The use of the helicarrier and satellite targeting systems that Project Insight employs feels a lot like the drones used to target terrorists. However, it doesn’t have to be the wrong hands to be problematic. The unmonitored hands are just as worrisome. As the saying goes “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely” which is why there are checks and balances in place to prevent such a thing.
An example of a check is the field of journalism. As a journalist himself, one of the topics Greenwald keeps returning to was the broken system of journalism in the United States. Where journalists, major papers and networks are far more interested in being in the good graces of the government rather than do their jobs: find and disseminate the truth. Throughout the book, I realized (and I’m sure Greenwald intended to convey) the importance of journalists and reporters to “act adversarially to those who wield political power” in a democratic system. They hold the government accountable and help make it possible for the everyday citizen to do the same through their reporting. What’s terrifying is the current administration’s attempt at criminalizing the actions of journalists and going hard after whistleblowers. An intense debate is ongoing between politicians and the public as to whether or not Snowden should come home and be punished for breaking the law in leaking those classified documents.
So far this appears to be a very American issue but the NSA’s PRISM program involved the internet greats such as Facebook, Gmail, Skype and Yahoo providing them with access to their customers communications who aren’t just situated in the United States but all over the world. Allied countries such as Germany were spied on and countries part of the Five Eyes including the United States (Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Australia and United States) worked along side the NSA in these major breaches of civil liberties and privacy.
Greenwald’s writing conveys an earnestness evident in his passion on the subject of surveillance and the years he’s spent covering it is obvious in the knowledge he offers to the readers. By the end of the first section, Contact, the reader is left without a doubt that Greenwald knows what he’s talking about. What surprised me the most – as someone who rarely reads non-fiction – was the storytelling element to the book. The book is divided into five sections with an introduction and an epilogue. The first two sections read like a spy thriller with a great use of tension in a time where the stakes were incredibly high. The third section, Collect It All, explains the leaked documents in an information heavy, academic tone that slows down pacing of the two previous sections. This is an important section but could put off the average reader due to the density of charts and terminology. I would suggest skipping this section and returning afterwards which won’t affect the reading experience. The last two sections have more of a reflective tone and looks at the themes I discussed on journalism and mass surveillance. One of the strengths of this piece (and its heart) is Greenwald’s depiction of Edward Snowden. It’s consistent with his initial interview video in The Guardian that first week of June in 2013 and again in an interview with Brian Williams in May 2014. Snowden’s sacrifice and reasons for why he decided to shatter his life in the name of transparency made me want to be better as a member of a democratic society.
As people in the United States debate on whether or not Snowden should be tried for leaking classified materials, the real and more pressuring debate is on mass surveillance and those who shut their blinds so they can peek into ours. That’s the question this book tackles and a question that we should all be thinking about today in the world where your entire life is a click away.