No Place to Hide serves as a literary companion to the Academy Award-winning documentary Citizenfour. Where documentary-maker Laura Poitras presents the government-shaking revelations provided by Edward Snowden in film, Glenn Greenwald presents them in written form.
Greenwald offers a different viewpoint and a deeper look into the historic meeting in Hong Kong. Having seen Citizenfour, this book provided me more context to their first contact with Snowden, those days holed up in a hotel room and the fallout from the revelations from the perspective of the first person to disclose them. I highly suggest watching the documentary and reading the book. The information in both will rattle you to the core.
In No Place To Hide, Greenwald presents an unrelenting point-by-point analysis of how the National Security Agency conducts warrant-less mass surveillance both internationally and domestically on U.S. citizens. One benefit of the book is that Greenwald is able to publish copies of the top-secret documents given to him by Snowden in full. Using those documents for support, he proves a series of disturbing truths.
The NSA collects all of your electronic metadata and does so without a warrant. That is not hyperbole, it is the actual slogan of NSA collection. And here are the NSA’s own Powerpoint slides to prove it. This means that when you make a phone call, or send a text or email, the NSA collects who you sent it (you), who you sent it to, where you were when you sent it, where the recipient was when they received it, how long the call was or how many messages were sent, and the time the message was sent and received. They now the who, what, when and where for every communication you have.
While the government has said it does not read emails or texts, nor listen to calls, that is highly debatable. But even at face value, metadata can in many cases be more intrusive. Imagine the government hires a private investigator to follow you. While the investigator wouldn’t know exactly what you said or wrote, he would know where you went, who you talked to, how long you talked, how often you talked, what you bought, what you looked at…a vast majority of what makes up a person’s day and life. Or in the words of Princeton Computer Science Professor Edward Felten:
Consider the following hypothetical example: A young woman calls her gynecologist; then immediately calls her mother; then a man who, during the past few months, she had repeatedly spoken to on the telephone after 11 pm; followed by a call to a family planning center that also offers abortions. A likely story-line emerges that would not be as evident by examining the record of a single telephone call.
How does the NSA collect this information? With the help from nearly every major telecommunications company in the United States. They partner with Verizon. They work hand-in-hand with AT&T, even building secret rooms within AT&T facilities that directly funnel customer information. They work with Google and Facebook to collect users’ private data. So while the Snowden leaks did eventually get legislation in place to rein in the NSA’s direct collection, these private companies can, and do, hand that data over to the NSA.
The NSA claims they collect all of this data to prevent terrorism. This is a lie. According to two separate, independent review panels with access to Top Secret documents the NSA has not stopped a single terror attack. Attacks that have been thwarted are due to the work of typical law enforcement.
The NSA has, however, monitored Brazilian and Mexican presidents; hacked the UN Secretary General for political advantage before global meetings; and spied on dozens of countries for economic gain – even our allies. The CIA (who, along with all government agencies, uses the NSA’s surveillance) even spied on the U.S. Senate committee charged with overseeing the NSA’s domestic surveillance program. Despite the government adamantly denying spying for any reason other than “to stop terrorism,” case after case shows this is not true.
Another casualty of a governement’s unrestrained domestic and international surveillance is adversarial journalism. Greenwald was labeled a traitor for aiding fellow “traitor” Snowden. Snowden still can’t return to the U.S. for fear of imprisonment, with some lawmakers calling for his death. Claims that he endangered government secrets and U.S. assets are unfounded – he simply showed hypocrisy and outright lying committed by the U.S. government. Good journalism serves as a watchdog, fighting abuse of power at every turn. Edward Snowden saw gross injustice being done to his fellow citizens. Glenn Greenwald thought, rightly, that those citizens and the world deserved to know what the government of the most powerful country in the world was doing to them in the dark. The Guardian and the Washington Post won a Pulitzer for their NSA reporting for a reason. A government that works in the dark is a dangerous one, and its citizens have a right to know what is being done for them and to them.
More generally though, the fact that the government can hack any device at any time and collect all communications potentially eliminates keeping sources safe. The loss of this vital journalistic aspect could effectively freeze any adversarial press. Moreover, the treatment of Snowden and fellow whistleblower Chelsea Manning greatly deter others from coming forward. A government meddling with, or even outright threatening, the media dulls the blade of adversarial journalism. It gives the governement editorial power over the very estate charged with keeping track of it. It is the CIA spying on the U.S. Senate on a grand scale. The Post, after accepting its Pulitzer, then wrote an editorial arguing against a pardon for Snowden. One wonders why.
We need whistleblowers, now more then ever. We as private citizens live increasingly public lives, where the government has the ability to learn personal and private details. In contrast, the government acts more and more in the shadows. In this past election alone, Donald Trump refused to release his tax records, leaving the American public in the dark about his financial dealings and partnerships. And Mike Pence is fighting to keep his own emails secret.
So why is all of this important? Most pressingly, Mike Pompeo has been floated as the new CIA Director. Pompeo fully supports reverting back to pre-Snowden NSA, effectively destroying the USA Freedom Act and expanding the NSA’s capabilities with little oversight. He, predictably, cites fighting terrorism as his reasoning.
But more importantly we as citizens deserve privacy. We have every right to be left alone. We have every right to not worry about someone, somewhere, looking up our private thoughts and conversations without warrant or reason. In Snowden’s own words:
“Privacy isn’t about something to hide. Privacy is about something to protect. That’s who you are. That’s what you believe in, that’s who you want to become. Privacy is the right to the self. Privacy is what gives you the ability to share with the world who you are, on your own terms, for them to understand what you’re trying to be. And to protect for yourself the parts of you that you’re not sure about, that you’re still experimenting with. If we don’t have privacy, what we’re losing is the ability to make mistakes. We’re losing the ability to be ourselves. Privacy is the fountainhead of all other rights. Freedom of speech doesn’t have a lot of meaning if you can’t have a quiet space to decide what it is that you actually want to say. Freedom of religion doesn’t mean that if you can’t figure out what you actually believe without being influenced by the criticisms and sort of outside direction and peer pressure of others. And it goes on and on and on. But privacy is baked into our language, our core concepts of government and self in every way. Without privacy, you won’t have anything for yourself… Arguing that you don’t have privacy because you have nothing to hide is like arguing that you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”
Thank you for reading,