Few advocates of digital privacy, and condemning voices of the national security state, are as visible, heard, or uncompromising, as Glenn Greenwald. Known for years, writing in publications various and sundry, Greenwald’s entry into a higher realm of visibility, and scrutiny, came with the revelations brought to him by former NSA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden about massive government overreach into private communications. For those thoroughly unplugged since the summer of 2013, the information about the NSA was both shocking and voluminous, encyclopedic in its amount of lawbreaking and amendment disregarding.
Of course, Snowden’s story is far from over. However, as Greenwald details in his latest work, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, this story isn’t meant to be about the leaker, it’s about the leak itself. Snowden is emphatic that the focus remain on the information he revealed to Greenwald and other journalists. And this has been somewhat successful, given the whistleblower’s evasion of interview or comment.
What Greenwald attempts to do is satisfy a need that has dogged the Snowden reveals since the start: who is this guy, what happened when you met, and how do you know he’s for real? In a way, it’s attempting to make a groundbreaking leak about abstract and distant digital forces personal, grounded, and real. Along the way, the author works to explain just what was revealed and why it’s so inimical to an open and free democracy. Finally, Greenwald turns his critical eye towards his own profession and how the vaunted Fourth Estate has fallen from its entrusted perch as truth-teller.
Conviction is key with Greenwald. No Place to Hide is filled with rousing statements such as: “From the time that it first began to be widely used, the Internet has been seen by many as possessing an extraordinary potential: the ability to liberate hundreds of millions of people by democratizing political discourse and leveling the playing field between the powerful and the powerless.”
Whether that was ever true is debatable. Technology, despite the occasional blip, usually magnifies and solidifies existing power and social relations, rather than destroying or reconfiguring them completely. Sure, the crossbow gave commoners a shot, literally, against heavily armored nobility on the battlefield, but commoners they remained. As Richard II declared, “rustics you were and rustics you are still.”
Regardless, what Greenwald writes gets at how the Internet is perceived, if not, necessarily, how it works. And who knows, maybe he’s right, in the end. Like Snowden, the Internet’s story is far from over.
The chapters bookending No Place to Hide is where the author shines. Alongside Greenwald, a confessed rube when it comes to handling technology, the reader learns how extensive and unsettling the NSA and its associated intelligence agencies are. His account of meeting Snowden in Hong Kong, alongside documentarian Laura Poitras, is tense with the pacing of a spy novel, fecund in moments like when Poitras shushes Greenwald because their cab driver might be a government spook, or when Snowden covers himself with a blanket to prevent ceiling cameras from spotting his keystrokes. Paranoid? Possibly. But considering the information at stake, not wholly unwarranted.
Although the core of the book is a lengthy, necessary explanation of the various secret state programs and their capabilities, complete with charts and graphs, it gels poorly with the opening narrative. Indeed, it seems like an entirely separate entity, a report of sorts, and its heaviness, filled with jargon, acronyms, and PowerPoint slides, is a hard departure from the boots-on-the-ground journalism earlier on. This information is essential to understand but hard to communicate, given its technicality and insularity, to a wide audience, a problem Snowden himself noted on a recent episode of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight. If change is going to occur, if the NSA is going to abide by its restrictions and respect our individual rights and liberties, then a public well-educated on the issue is a must.
How does that happen? It’s foggy. And for all of the charts and graphs and tech speak Greenwald gives to explain, the most affective parts are simple statements related to the author’s own experiences. “Over the years, I’ve given many speeches about how surveillance changes human behavior, highlighting studies showing that people who know they are being watched are more confined, more cautious about what they say, less free.” Perhaps it’s overly simplistic but boiling down the complex to the personal might be a good start. Metadata is simple to understand but its implications go over my head. Knowing if the NSA can see naked pictures of me, per the aforementioned Last Week Tonight episode brings the issue down to earth.
No Place to Hide ends with Greenwald’s pugilistic denunciation of the mainstream media, its subservience to power and corporate aversion to boat rocking. Snowden wanted his leak to spark a conversation, one he fervently wished would last longer than the typical news cycle, which has happened. He didn’t want to be part of this conversation but that was never going to happen. Greenwald relates the fate of past whistleblowers and all of the personal invective launched their way. He’s a traitor, he’s a narcissist, he’s crazy, he’s a loser, he’s a pervert, et al. all of these charges have been used to discredit the messenger in the past, thereby muddying the message, slander trotted out and aimed at Snowden. It can be shockingly effective, middle school whispering translated to the adult world of real consequences.
Here Greenwald gives a fine sendoff to his subject, doing what he can as a writer to justify Snowden’s actions to the powerful and passive, doing what a good journalist does, afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted: “In fact, both observing and breaking the rules involve moral choices, and both courses of action reveal something important about the individual involved. Contrary to the accepted premise—that radical dissent demonstrates a personality disorder—the opposite could be true: in the face of severe injustice, a refusal to dissent is the sign of a character flaw or moral failure.”
Though this story is still being written, No Place to Hide is an excellent place to begin understanding the breadth and scope of our national security apparatus, what’s being done in our name, for both the curious and the buff. It is also a portrait of courage, determination, and the lengths people go to stand by their principles.