Snowden, Greenwald and Young Einstein

“If you can’t trust the governments of the world, who can you trust?” Thus said Young Einstein, played by Yahoo Serious in the 1988 Australian comedy movie with the same title. In this version, Einstein is a Tasmanian genius who splits the beer atom and wants to share the gift of atomic power to the world. The – obviously ironic – line leaps to mind as I read Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide (Henry Holt, 2014) which of course is the story of how Edward Snowden leaked top secret NSA files to him and the events that followed. The story is familiar by now, but the first part of Greenwald’s book is still a page-turner, on par with any crime fiction you will read at the beach this summer. In the second part, Greenwald goes deeper into the material that Snowden provided, demonstrating the depth and span of NSA and GCHQ monitoring. Most of it is also already familiar to anyone who follows the news, but put together it’s still overwhelming. I find myself fascinated that those government agencies can not only collect this data, but also to some extent make sense of it. I find it difficult to find old messages in my Outlook inbox, imagine searching through billions of e-mails. As fascinating as this maybe, the second third is also the least appealing to the reader, the story is interrupted with facsimiles of powerpoint slides and other outtakes from the documents on almost every page.

In the third and final part, Greenwald discusses the impact of the surveillance state on the freedom of the individual and, by extension, democracy. When Big Brother is watching, we change our behaviour, says Greenwald and it’s hard to disagree. But there is something off with his logic, NSA tried to keep their surveillance secret. Snowden, Greenwald and their partners revealed it. The idea was not for NSA to let people know they were being watched, but the opposite. So however compelling a case Greenwald makes against government surveillance, it seems to go beside the point of revealing the “US surveillance state”. Greenwald also expresses great frustration that so many of his journalist colleagues took sides with the government, even collaborated with it – and not only on the NSA-case, apparently many US news organisations confer with government authorities before releasing secret documents(!). And while it is easy to share his frustration, Greenwald’s surprise is a little… well, surprising. The point that mainstream media supports the government has been made many times before, perhaps best by Edward S Herman and Noam Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent(Pantheon, 1988). We knew this already: in a perfect world, the “fourth estate” should be a vigilant watch dog over the government, but in practice this is the exception rather than the rule.

The Snowden leaks and Greenwald’s publications is no small accomplishment, as the writer puts it himself, it has changed the course of history. But I find it hard to agree with the conclusion that the government is the primary threat online and that anonymity through cryptography is the answer for the average user. Rather, the take-away should be that government involvement online should be closely regulated, but it is the idea that the internet is a place void of rules that is the real problem. That gives license to security agencies to do what they want, as well as private companies to sell our personal information to third parties, or criminals to operate without consequence. The internet needs to move out of the shadows, not deeper into them. And to Young Einstein’s point, no we can’t trust the governments of the world. But we also can’t do without them.