Who Watches the Watchmen?

Book Review: No Place To Hide (2014) by Glenn Greenwald, Metropolitan Books

Glenn Greenwald, columnist at the Guardian, and US documentary film maker Laura Poitras, were the two journalists chosen by former CIA/NSA/Dell-employee Edward Snowden to break the news of the NSA-wiretapping programmes in 2013. “No place to hide” is Greenwald’s testimony to what arguably is the scoop of the millennium so far.

Greenwald plows through his story with the commitment of an evangelist on a quest for accountability and with utmost mistrust of big government. And perhaps that is the natural way to prolong the life of a story of the NSA surveillance programmes whose main traits were revealed more than a year ago.

The main ingredients of the story are of course well known, and in his book, Greenwald mostly fills out the padding in the story, with first-hand details of how the collaboration with Snowden evolved.

When covering the NSA operations, Greenwald paints the image of a surrealistic digital landscape, erected by NSA in the wake of the 9/11 trauma and the US governments’ belief that terrorism must be fought with any means necessary. The result: a global spying system of an almost unimaginable scope, and mankind’s largest effort to reach total control over the minds of human species. By data collection and triangulation methods the NSA could gain access to what we think, who we talk to, where we do it and why. The targets were not only millions of US citizens’ e-mail and telephone conversations, but also communication overseas, on any imaginable level, from presidents to peasants.

What originated as a national anti-terrorist programme over the decade had also morphed into a system used to support the nation’s political, diplomatic and economic interests. Snowden’s hope that the Obama administration would roll back the abuses was followed by utter disappointment.

Greenwald also tells how giant net-corporations like Microsoft, Skype and Facebook, in spite of official claims of respecting their customers’ privacy, willingly and actively cooperated with the NSA, turning the surveillance project into a public-private enterprise.

The global spying program of the NSA has had an ever growing array of sub systems with suggestive names that sometimes even seem to blend high tech abbreviations with army code lingo: XKeyscore, Tempora, Sigint, Stormbrew, Oakstar, Steelknight, Blarney. In the heart of the programme resides the anti-terrorist system Prism, and the overseas spying program Echelon.

The names themselves sometimes tell a story. Fairview was the name, unfairly given to a NSA system of serialized collection of metadata around the world, and one of the main storage hubs for the increasing amounts of data was built in premises with 25,000 square meters of server space in Bluffdale, Utah.

What originated as a national anti-terrorist programme over the decade had also morphed into a system used to support the nation’s political, diplomatic and economic interests.

However, Greenwald’s book does not only give a more detailed repetition of the NSA abuses.

The first half of No place to hide deals mostly with the secrecy and drama of how, when and where to publish the classified documents. Any journalist familiar with the organic and erratic functions of the media game knows that the public impact lies not in the facts themselves, but how they actually play out. How the cards happen to land on the table.

This lesson, was clear to Greenwald from the outset. The NSA revelations therefore had to be fitted into several separate stories, published by a major news outlet that both had clout and a certain level of independence. Greenwald and Poitras worked intensely, and had to master brinkmanship to get The Guardian editors to play the game without losing what could be a winning hand. He tells of the tactics used when he and Poitras struggled to engage but at the same time contain Washington Post, which Greenwald regarded as an establishment media corporation that could blow the impact of the disclosures, by downplaying them and letting the story be disarmed and controlled by government and security initiatives.

However, they succeeded indeed, and after their intense interview sessions with Edward Snowden in his Hong Kong hotel room the news hit the world in June 2013.

Snowden’s personal motives seem, according to this book, as a result of straightforward conscience qualms. He was a tech whiz insider, working for CIA, NSA and Dell, increasingly aggravated by how the security programmes seem to treat the world increasingly as a mix between a modern computer game and a control apparatus of a classic totalitarian communist regime. As Snowden is quoted:

“The stuff I saw really began to disturb me. I could watch drones in real time as they surveilled the people they might kill. You could watch entire villages and see what everyone was doing. I watched NSA tracking people’s Internet activities as they typed”.

The NSA, that had grown into a beast with almost 30.000 employees, and furthermore supported by tens of thousands assigned co-workers in private corporations, had clearly spun out of control of the US constitution, one that otherwise claims a high regard for people’s right to individual privacy. The explanation to why NSA started to use methods with highly questionable ethics – apart from the pressing needs to prevent another 9/11 – was the availability of the noble art of Big Data. Otherwise heralded as the technology of the future of knowledge. With the mere existence of such tools for large scale automatic mining and interpretation of communication, combined with an organization with the size and ambitions of the NSA, one can easily understand that the restraints of the constitution are, and will continue to be constantly pressured, and in the end, possibly abused. However, in the book, Greenwald seem reasonably satisfied of the political aftermath that has led the US Congress to reign in the methods of the NSA.

So what do we make of all this? The answer is, of course, up for grabs.

Greenwald does not give us much guidance beyond his expected moral vibrato about the merits of the constitution, and his condemnation of US government and military ambitions.

One thing I would conclude at least, is that we in the NSA scandal seem to have witnessed a clash between young idealistic beliefs of what the Internet is in itself – a force empowering ordinary people, a tool for self-actualization – and what authorities swiftly can transform it into, a tool for controlling the people and abusing its human rights. So, no technology is good in itself, it all comes down to how we use and perhaps constrain it.

Another, perhaps less encouraging development that should be watched with the NSA scandal in mind, lies in the ongoing and increasing uses of Big Data by big corporations, bodies that do not operate under the limits and claims of democratic values.

There is little doubt that the evolving story of how people of the world are being watched, mapped and tracked, day by day, has in fact merely just started.

Paul Frigyes