“I want to spark a worldwide debate about privacy, Internet freedom and the dangers of state surveillance. I am not afraid of what will happen to me…The only thing I can’t live with is knowing I did nothing.” – Edward Snowden
Glenn Greenwald’s ‘No Place to Hide’ is as audacious a book as it is nerve-racking. Largely a commentary on Snowden’s revelations of the NSA’s malpractices and the crumbling state of American journalism, ‘No Place to Hide’ shines an ugly spotlight on the devastating consequences of a state’s paranoid obsession with its security apparatus. It underlines how in the name of national security, a government can perpetrate a vast concoction against its own people. My initial impression of ‘No Place to Hide’ was of a literary ode to ‘Edward Snowden’, but, much to my satisfaction, it turned out to be much more than that.
For starters, in 2013, Greenwald published a series of articles in ‘The Guardian’ newspaper exposing the National Security Agency (NSA) and its secretive surveillance machinery. He accused the NSA of wiretapping phone calls, reading mails and online chats, collecting credit card details and insurance records of the American people. He was comprehensively aided by Edward Snowden, a former CIA contractor, who had legal access to the classified information during his days at the agency. Snowden exploded on the scene in the immediate aftermath of the leaks and quickly turned into a polarizing figure. He became a hero to many Americans, even while his detractors roundly criticized him for compromising national security.
To Greenwald, Snowden is a hero, someone who sacrificed his own freedom for the enlightenment of people and the world at large. However, his portrayal of Snowden doesn’t do enough to demystify the shroud which still remains over Snowden’s intentions to go public. Admittedly, Greenwald himself wasn’t first convinced at Snowden’s accounts to act against the Government. Ultimately, it was Snowden’s doggedness, and his cogent, philosophical appeal that moved the author. Here’s Snowden, “I want to spark a worldwide debate about privacy, Internet freedom and the dangers of state surveillance. I am not afraid of what will happen to me…The only thing I can’t live with is knowing I did nothing.” Irrespective of how you perceive Snowden – a patriot or a traitor – his revelations did bring to the surface the issue of government-led mass spying like never before.
Greenwald gives us an impressionistic chronicle of events flowing from Snowden’s leaks. The first third of the book reads like an investigative thriller with the author himself in the thick of action. Cryptographic softwares, air-gapped laptops, cell phones that can be tapped even when they are switched off, and a soon to be enemy-of-the-state figure on the run, are all but a few ingredients that make the first few chapters an enthralling read. Greenwald’s narrative also evokes anxiety and a sense of unease in the mind of the reader, especially, about Snowden’s guarded intentions.
An implied notion the author repeatedly propagates throughout the book is that we are all guinea pigs in the hands of government. To paraphrase the author, when a government sets out on a ruthless, punitive pursuit, you can’t imagine the extent it will go to achieve those ends. From tracking down mainly suspicious lurkers, the US government allegedly gave the NSA a free hand to go all out in its mission of information surveillance. And, to make it all look legit, the FISA (foreign intelligence surveillance act) court – a rubber stamp institution in the author’s view – abetted the NSA by giving blanket authorizations to target anyone, even its own citizens.
The PPT slides in the second third of the book prove a little too tedious to absorb, but even a cursory glance through a few can cause a good amount of disquiet. Apparently, the most prized set of documents in Snowden’s archives was the PRISM files which delineated furtive agreements between the NSA and top US internet firms, including the big 4 – Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft, allowing the NSA to snoop directly into their servers with no interaction with respective company’s staff. Yes, that’s so much for those your-information-is-safe-with-us spiels.
The final section comprises the author’s critique of the state of journalism in the US. Greenwald flays the Washington Post and the New York Times for toeing the government line. A practice he calls consultative journalism. Even during the Snowden revelations, Greenwald deliberately chose not to go to the Post and the New York Times for their accommodating stance towards the authorities and instead lined up London-based ‘The Guardian’.
Greenwald writes, “The job of the press is to disprove the falsehoods that power invariably disseminates to protect itself. Without that type of journalism, abuse is inevitable.”
There are several precedents in history where many rulers played tub-thumpers by invoking external threats to justify their acts of vengeance. The NSA’s invocation of the grave terrorism threats to justify surveillance stands no different, Greenwald writes. I doubt if this book would have materialized had the NSA used its wherewithal to hunt down terrorists. But instead the NSA went overboard with its mission. It started collecting communications records of its own people, snooped on the influential G7 politicians, intercepted the communications of big corporations (corporate espionage). Much of the data collection has patently nothing to do with terrorism. Here’s Greenwald: “The NSA is the definitive rogue agency: empowered to do whatever it wants with very little control, transparency or accountability.”
It’s easy to dismiss Greenwald’s expositions as feeble rants of an activist journalist, someone who’s manifestly oblivious to how national security works. However, what you can’t dismiss is the Orwellian scenario which is shaping up not only in the US, but the whole wide world. Governments wiretap whosoever they want to; amendments are being made to existing laws to enable the authorities to capture more data. It’s happening. We have come a long way from the days of Project Shamrock and today’s surveillance is more pervasive and massively intrusive. With Donald Trump at the helm of affairs, one thing is certain – the world will be a more chaotic place. The NSA, with whatever resources it still lacked, will receive an enormous impetus in its mission of ‘collect it all’. Yes, things are bound to go awry. Anyways, my thumbs up to Greenwald’s book, it’s a disturbing subject alright, but the one that brings a dose of hard reality to the table.