Book Review: No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State by Glenn Greenwald
This book is the most important book I've read this year. Well, listened to. In terms of my Reading Challenge, No Place To Hide is checking off the category of "a book that scares you." The analysis of the NSA documents and the implications for people living under a surveillance state are truly chilling. And Greenwald's scrutiny of the media makes it clear that our watchdogs have been tranked with some juicy steaks...making life even more frightening.
In terms of the audiobook, the narrator is L.J. Gander and he does a fine job of articulating all of the information. Intellectually I knew that Gander was the person reading, but in my head, I just interpreted his voice as that of Greenwald's, so the audiobook flowed naturally for me.
The first third of the book was incredibly easy to listen to. It reads like a spy novel with the players covertly contacting each other, traveling to Hong Kong, meeting in clandestine bars and hotels, and feeling the mounting pressure to get the stories published.
If you've seen Laura Poitras' documentary Citizenfour, then you're familiar with the behind-the-scenes story of Snowden contacting and meeting with journalists who he believed would work in the best interest of Americans in responsibly publishing key documents in the archive he provided them. Greenwald's account dives into much more detail. His description is more blow-by-blow, especially with The Guardian's initial hesitancy to publish out of fear of being shut down.
Everything about the first third of this book is gripping!
Once Greenwald starts analyzing the documents in detail and laying out which agencies in the world cooperate with each other, it gets a little harder to follow on audio. There are a lot of acronyms. And there's quite a bit of information that's been redacted. While I followed the Snowden leak with interest, I know that I didn't read every story. My background knowledge was good, but not great.
It was at this point that I found Glenn Greenwald's website for No Place to Hide and started looking at the documents he provides there. I took a few screenshots and the one below is the ones that scared me the most. This slide from the NSA should be something I encounter in one of my science-fiction dystopian novels. Not something illustrating my government's attitude towards its citizens.
The screenshots below are also pretty scary.
I understand that the NSA's mission is to spy on other countries, but when I'm presented with evidence that the NSA wants to collect all information on everyone, seeing government employees tampering with network equipment with the aim of attaching devices to spy on whoever concerns me.
Finding these documents on the website was incredibly helpful in deciphering what was going on in the middle of this book. If you're going to listen to the audiobook, I recommend reading the pdf before listening to Gander rattle off acronym after acronym. He sounds particularly official whenever he says "redacted," which he says a lot! I got to the point where I could feel a "redacted" coming on. It kind of made the audiobook a little more interactive for me.
The last third of the book is as gripping as the first. Here Greenwald analyzes the nature of surveillance and its effect on society. He also criticizes the mainstream media for their willingness to cooperate with the US government in keeping this kind of information from the public.
In particular, I am fascinated by the tactic of demonizing the messenger, whether it's the whistle blower or journalist. And Greenwald has multiple examples that he works through.
I don't even understand the question "Is Snowden a narcissist?"
He was a young guy making good money with a promising future who decided to perform an act of conscience.
I realize that many people in power have no concept of what an act of conscience is, but I would compare Edward Snowden to Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Atticus says to his son Jem, "I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do."
Snowden was one person witnessing blatant spying on the American people. Rather than just continuing to collect his paycheck, he decided to act. Even though he had the forethought to meet the journalists in Hong Kong, he had no way of knowing if he would be arrested, imprisoned, or killed. But he did it anyway because he felt like it was the right thing to do.
And using his name? Another act of conscience.
When Atticus thinks Jem killed Bob Ewell, he tells the sheriff, "Best way to clear the air is to have it all out in the open." Meaning that Atticus wants the sheriff to arrest Jem and have him face the consequences of his actions openly rather than endure the stigma of gossip that would be sure to surround Jem for the rest of his life if they conspired to cover up Bob Ewell's murder.
Snowden wanted everyone to know who the source was. More importantly, he wanted a public debate on these programs he helped expose and our privacy. He was actually being transparent. Something that Obama's administration promised, but failed to deliver. Big time!
Thanks for the healthcare reforms, but could you get out of my medical records?
Even though this book did scare me, I'm glad that I listened to it. I'd like to listen to it again, and read Greenwald's other books as well.
If you're on the fence about reading this book, I'd suggest two videos to see if you like Greenwald's style. The first is the shorter of the two: Glenn Greenwald's TEDTalk from October 2014 entitled "Why privacy matters."
The second video is from the YouTubes. It's almost two hours long, and the video quality is not great. But if you're interested in hearing some truly compelling arguments about Privacy and Government Surveillance, then Greenwald's presentation before a Canadian audience is worth watching.
It was taped a few days after the attack on the Canadian Parliament in late-October 2014. There are two different people who introduce Greenwald, so he doesn't start addressing the audience until about nine minutes in. But once he gets going he navigates difficult and uncomfortable topics with tact and aplomb.
Greenwald, Poitras, and Snowden are courageous human beings who put their own liberties at risk to help inform the rest of us. Thank you all!