Thursday, June 5, 2014

Glenn Greenwald: No Place to Hide

It is one year since the revelations of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, confirmed our worst fears regarding widespread interception of telephone and internet communications. Those leaks were carefully shepherded to publication according to a carefully planned timetable by Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras (together with Ewen MacAskill of The Guardian) in order to ensure that the importance of those disclosures was not lost in the midst of mass information overload. Greenwald's role in the Snowden leaks has not been without personal risk and cost to him (and to his partner David Miranda) and in this book No Place To Hide, he traverses all of these issues: the background to his meeting with Snowden (together with Poitras) and decisions taken regarding content and timing of publications; his own analysis of the leaked material in context; a discussion of the dangers of mass surveillance and threats to privacy and an exploration of what it means to be a journalist in the post 9/11 era, when concerted efforts are made to break down journalists' protections and to discredit whistleblowers as paranoid loners with no sense of social obligation.
Greenwald has written a very readable book which identifies a number of vital questions for our age. He addresses these questions from a multi-jurisdictional perspective, highlighting key differences in particular between US and UK approaches to journalistic protections and freedom of speech. It also provides a fascinating insight into Edward Snowden, the young man prepared to put his whole life on hold (and potentially much worse) to stand up for what he believes in.
Along the way a number of other interesting points are canvassed.
Greenwald begins by outlining the story of the early contacts that were made to him by Snowden and his uncertainty regarding the status and seriousness of this potential source. Contact was delayed by his own lack of understanding of the need for encrypted communications. Once these obstacles were overcome and he travelled to Hong Kong (meanwhile still questioning whether the effort would be wasted) only to be surprised by the serious, well-organised, thoughtful and startlingly young Edward Snowden. This background reinforces the fact that Snowden's act of whistleblowing was no reckless or random act. Here is a man prepared to sacrifice his own freedom to support the ideals of democracy and transparency. He did not seek any personal gain of any kind and was determined to remove himself from the centre of the story, so the focus was not on personality  but rather about his message.
Greenwald makes an interesting aside regarding the role of video games in shaping Snowden's world view (and of course that of others of his generation) through 'moulding political consciousness, moral reasoning, and an understanding of one's place in the world', as well as the central belief in the value of the internet: 'the world in which his mind and personality developed, a place unto itself that offered freedom, exploration, and the potential for intellectual growth and understanding.' This belief in the need to ensure that the internet functions as a place for freedom and individual actualisation lies behind Snowden's motivations to reveal the vast, daily, bulk collection of personal data being undertaken by the NSA and its equivalents in other States, and Greenwald captures and articulates this core belief well.
A key message to take away from Greenwald's book is the ongoing threat to journalistic standards and freedoms: the detention of David Miranda at Heathrow, the raid on The Guardian's offices and smashing of computer hard drives and the repeated demands for Greenwald's prosecution as a 'co-conspirator"should be seen as very serious incursions on the independence and integrity of journalistic freedoms. As Greenwald notes, the smashing of computers and hard drives by The Guardian on the demand of GCHQ staff is bad enough, but what does it mean for the source who has risked his life to bring their contents to light? How do we deal with growing complicity between journalists and politicians?  Particularly chilling were the references to efforts against Anonymous and the 'human network that supports WikiLeaks'. The attacks on Greenwald were derogatory and dangerous and the status of journalistic standards and the continued existence of an independent media remain in question.
Greenwald's book is still shocking for the stories that it reveals about data collection. The clunky power point slides used to train NSA employees and contracts contained in the book are laughable and chilling for their simplistic message of "Collect it All".
This book is vital reading for anyone concerned about the Snowdon revelations and their implications for privacy, but also for those concerned about the future of journalism in the context of whistleblowing, mass surveillance and Big Data.

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