After watching the recent PBS Frontline investigation “The United States of Secrets” and Brian Williams’ subsequent interview with Edward Snowden on NBC, I was moved to pick up a few books on the subject of the NSA contractor’s revelations of the NSA’s mass surveillance program: Luke Harding’s The Snowden Files (February 2014), James Bamford’s The Shadow Factory: The NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America (July 2009), and Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State (May 2013). The latter is the topic of this post, and it’s a disturbing but imperative read for all American citizens.
Chapters 1 (“Contact”) chronicles Greenwald’s initial meetings with Edward Snowden (tentatively reaching out using the monicker “Cincinnatus”, after the Roman statesman and exemplar of civic virtue). Greenwald, at one time a constitutional lawyer and civil rights litigator, journalist and blogger, was selected by Snowden due to his interest in the ongoing violations of privacy by the CIA / NSA. (Curiously, he admits to nearly missing the “scoop of the century” due to his initial neglect to honor Snowden’s request to install PGP encryption before initiating the email exchanges. Their subsequent meeting (Chapter 2, “Ten Days in Hong Kong”) was actually facilitated by journalist and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitrus, to whom Snowden had also revealed his identity.
It was in Hong Kong that Snowden disclosed the news of mass-surveillance programs conducted by the NSA and the GHCQ (The UK’s equivalent intelligence agency) — “aimed at Americans and non-Americans alike” — via an interception of communication: tapping Internet servers, satellites, underwater fiber-optic cables, local and foreign telephone systems and personal computers, the scope of which is unprecedented in American history.
With all the tension of a Robert Ludlum novel, Greenwald tells of the significant effort taken by Snowden, Poitrus and Greenwald to publicize some of Snowden’s revelations in The Guardian (See: The NSA Files) and to disclose the identity of Snowden himself (on his own terms), in a race against time with the NSA.
The Capacity and Scope of NSA’s Surveillance
Chapter III (“Collect It All”) provides an extensive tour of some of the key Snowden documents (reprinted in the book and available for download from Greenwald’s website) which, once deciphering the terminology, detail a variety of intelligence programs, among them: BOUNDLESS INFORMANT (collecting telephone calls from around the world), PRISM (collecting data directly from the servers of the world’s biggest Internet companies); PROJECT BULLRUN (a joint NSA-GCHQ to defeat the most common forms of encryption safeguarding online transactions); MUSCULAR (seeking means to invade the private networks of Yahoo and Google), and X-KEYSCORE (surveilling the activity of online social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, providing “insight into the personal lives of targets”).
The conclusion reached by Greenwald’s survey of such programs, their capacity and scope, is disturbing:
“… The US government had built a system that has as its goal the complete elimination of electronic privacy worldwide. Far from hyperbole, that is the literal, explicitly stated aim of the surveillance state: to collect, store, monitor and analyze all electronic communication by all people around the globe.”
The information collected is then shared by the NSA with the rest of the intelligence community, including the FBI and he CIA — and beyond that, a group of nations labeled the “Five Eyes” — Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom — those whom the United States spies with, but rarely on). According to Greenwald, “the Five Eyes relationship is so close that member governments place the NSA’s desires above the privacy of its own citizens.”
It is of course objected by both the Bush and Obama administrations that the United States respects the privacy of its citizens, and cannot eavesdrop without legal warrant. Besides being an odd line of defense (“in effect, it told the rest of the world that the NSA does assault the privacy of non-Americans”), the claim is also patently false, as the 2008 FISA law permits the “incidental” collection of American communications with a targeted foreign national. As the ACLU noted, “the principal purpose of the law was to make it possible to collect Americans‘ international communications — and to collect those communications without reference to whether any party to those communications was doing anything illegal. . . . the government doesn’t need to “target” Americans in order to collect huge volumes of their communication.”
Generally speaking, the NSA collects two types of data — “content” (the actual content of a person’s phone calls, emails, online chats, browsing history or search activities) or “metadata” (the amassment of data about such communications (ex. who emailed whom, when the email was sent, the location of the persons sending / receiving it). It is likewise insisted that the surveillance revealed by Snowden largely involves the collection of the latter and hence, is not intrusive. Greenwald explains why this too is questionable:
When the government knows everyone you call and everyone who calls you, plus the exact length of those phone conversations; when it can list every single one of your email correspondents and every location from where your emails were sent, it can create a remarkably comprehensive picture of your life, your associations, your activities, including some of your most intimate and private information.
Or as Columbia University’s computer science professor Ed Felton notes
Calling patterns can reveal when we are awake and asleep; our religion, if a person regularly makes no calls on the sabbath, or makes a large number of calls on Christmas day; our work habits and our social aptitude; the number of friends we have, and even our civil and political affiliations.
A number of Greenwald’s critics maintain that “privacy is for those who have something to hide” — perhaps not so surprisingly, not one of them are willing to relinquish the passwords to their email accounts, or allow video cameras into their homes.
What the loss of privacy means for us
In Chapter 4, “The Harm of Surveillance”, Greenwald explains what the loss of privacy at the hands of a surveillance state can mean for our freedoms as American citizens, and for the future of democracy in general. The right to privacy — to be let alone — “is an essential, not ancillary, part of what it means to be human.”
Even while the NSA with its capacity “could not read every email, listen to every phone call, or track the actions of each individual … [w]hat makes a surveillance system effective in controlling human behavior is the knowledge that one’s words and actions are susceptible to monitoring.” Greenwald explores this principle of oppression-by-surveillance in the work of Jeremy Bentham’s 18th century conception of the Panopticon, the psychological studies of Gregory White and Philip Zimbardo (“The Chilling Effects of Surveillance”), and philosopher Michael Foucault’s Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, a study of how pervasive surveillance can ensure the automatic functioning of power, causing those who are subject to internalize the repression: “[choosing] to do that which is wanted of them without even realizing they are being controlled.
While Chapter III is perhaps the most beneficial part of the book (in terms of obtaining knowledge of the Snowden documents that have been disclosed to date), I found Greenwald’s discussion of privacy and why it matters to be the most interesting. The “internalization” of governmental and societal controls under universal surveillance is disturbing to think about. To put a philosophical spin on it, one might ask: What is our motivation of citizens? What does it mean to practice “good citizenship”? To be a moral and law abiding citizen? . . . It seems to me that in such circumstances where law enforcement extends their reach into areas of our lives that were formerly considered private and protected, the functional obedience and cooperation of its citizens is achieved not by their willingness to cooperate and assume moral responsibility (“I want to be a good citizen”) — but rather by compliance with surveillance, whether external or suppressed (“I have to be good”).
There is always some give and take in functional society, a compromise of freedom with security. As citizens, we consent to relinquish certain freedoms in compliance with the law and for the sake of the common good. We obey traffic laws, we recognize curfews or noise limits in urban areas . . . we don’t read each other’s mail. But this is carried out with the mutual understanding that both the state and its citizens abide by the rule of law, and that the state will comply with and be subservient to the law. But with every revelation, it seems that this no longer seems to be the case. Just to cite some recent examples from the news:
- What does it say when the top Internet companies are now battling to keep the government and especially the NSA, out of their servers? When “after years of cooperating with the government, the immediate goal now is to thwart Washington — as well as Beijing and Moscow.” (New York Times 06/06/14).
- What does it mean when the House Intelligence Committee warns American companies that they should avoid doing business with China’s two leading technology firms due to risks of espionage: “China has the means, opportunity and motive to use telecommunications companies for malicious purposes.” Now we find this is simply a case of the “pot calling the kettle black.”
- What does it do to international relations when it is disclosed that the U.S. was monitoring [German Chancellor] Merkel’s cellphone conversations, as well as those of 35 other foreign leaders? (Or when the President of the United States assured the Chancellor that she wasn’t being wiretapped — only to find out he’s wrong?
The “Fourth Estate”
The idea of a “fourth estate”, says Greenwald, is that:
those who exercise the greatest power need to be challenged by adversarial pushback and an insistance on transparency; the job of the press is to disprove the falsehoods that power invariably disseminates to protect itself.
In Chapter 5, Greenwald castigates the mainstream press for having abdicated this responsibility — with some going even further to willfully carry out the government’s “dirty work” instead (especially when it comes to the character assassination of whistleblowers). Greenwald also takes note of the remarkable fluidity between journalists and political life (ex. Obama White House spokesperson Jay Carney was former Washington Bureau Chief for Time magazine, and David Axelrod is now a commentator on MSNBC / NBC News). We have reached a point where “US establishment journalism is anything but an outsider force. It is wholly integrated into the nation’s dominant political power.”
For an administration that frequently bills itself as being “the most transparent” Administration ever, Greenwald wryly observes that Obama “has done exactly the opposite”: prosecuting more whistleblowers than all previous administrations in US history combined.
The revival of the “fourth estate” would appear to be a motivation for Greenwald’s launching of The Intercept, a new journalistic website with the short-term mission “to provide a platform to report on the documents previously provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden”, and the long-term objective:
to produce fearless, adversarial journalism across a wide range of issues. The editorial independence of our journalists will be guaranteed. They will be encouraged to pursue their passions, cultivate a unique voice, and publish stories without regard to whom they might anger or alienate. We believe the prime value of journalism is its power to impose transparency, and thus accountability, on the most powerful governmental and corporate bodies, and our journalists will be provided the full resources and support required to do this.