Snowden, Surveillance, And The Power Of Persuasion

Edward Snowden is quoted claiming that his goal in releasing top secret NSA documents was to “spark a world debate about privacy, Internet freedom, and the dangers of state surveillance,” and it is with this mindset that I write this article. Everyone should be as informed about this information as possible, and No Place to Hide, journalist Glenn Greenwald’s account of the Snowden scandal, is a great place to start.

Almost a year after the first news article describing the NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden, Greenwald released the book, an explanation of his introduction to Snowden and the stolen NSA files, the nature of their release, and a brief summary of the documents applying to domestic, political and economic espionage.

That’s the good part of the book. The last third, where Greenwald shoves his opinion of the political and media reaction down your throat, ruins the reader’s ability to take in the information and develop their own opinion. Another review of this book in The Economist hits the nail on the head, saying “all too often, though, he proselytizes rather than analyses.”

The first two-thirds of the book, Greenwald’s collection of the information, meeting Snowden, and the summary of the leaked documents, is almost as thrilling and gut-wrenching as Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Make no mistake, as far as style and plot development are concerned, Larsson could write circles around Greenwald, but the knowledge that this information is real and affects the lives of everyone on earth using the Internet will keep your eyes glued to the page.

Greenwald’s story begins with encrypted emails and chat messages from Snowden offering to provide Greenwald and documentarian Lauren Poitras with what Snowden is quoted as describing later in the book as “thousands of Top Secret documents from the nation’s most secretive agency—a leak that will produce dozens if not hundreds of huge journalistic scoops.”

Snowden delivers on his promise and more, sparking four articles written by Greenwald and published by the Guardian, a London-based news website, explaining the hitherto secret surveillance practices of the NSA and the private companies used to support those practices. Each article, and the details behind the NSA’s surveillance strategy, is given an in-depth explanation in the book.
The first article explains the great scale of communication records secretly shared between the NSA and the telecom giant Verizon. The images below, and those shown later in this article, are featured in No Place to Hide, and are direct copies of the leaked NSA documents.

FISA Verizon Order 1 FISA Verizon Order 2

Greenwald goes on to explain the amount of information the NSA can glean about someone’s life with this “telephony metadata,” not the audio recordings of the phone calls themselves, but details surrounding the call: who you called, how long you spoke, how often you call them, what time you made the call and much more.

PRISM is the subject of the second article. This is a program used by the NSA to gather communication data from some of the largest internet and communication companies in existence, including Microsoft, Google, Apple and Facebook. The data collected includes email text, recordings of video chat sessions, copies of photos and details of social networking, among other pieces of information. See graphics below:

PRISM Collection Details

Within hours of releasing the PRISM article, the Guardian then released a third article outlining what Greenwald describes as a “top secret presidential directive signed by President Obama in November 2012 ordering the Pentagon and related agencies to prepare for a series of aggressive cyber assaults around the world.”

Finally, Greenwald and the Guardian released an article explaining the program BOUNDLESS INFORMANT. He explains how the “NSA was collecting, analyzing, and storing billions of telephone calls and emails sent across the American telecommunications infrastructure.” See graphic below:


PRISM Collection Details

BOUNDLESS INFORMANT was developed as a means to quantify and keep track of the billions of pieces of information recorded. The horrifically gigantic number highlighted in red in the above graphic reflects the amount of data collected from the United States alone. This does not take into account any of the NSA’s overseas electronic espionage.

This practice of sucking in as much information as possible, referred to as “collect it all,” was the dream-come-true of four star general and former head of the NSA, Keith B. Alexander, who took the surveillance practices used in the Iraq War and expanded them to almost every inch of the globe.

No Place to Hide is lush with information like this, but explained in a much more comprehensive way. The sheer amount of quotes and copies of secret NSA documents displayed in the book could be its own standalone publication. Frankly, I wish that were the case.

Once Greenwald starts sharing his personal opinion of the political and media reaction to the leaks, the book loses its thriller-style allure and becomes the very ‘I can yell louder than you’ political dribble that he spends so much energy condemning.

This is not to say that Greenwald’s own opinion is not worth reading, but most of his best points in the opinion section are from his sources, like the federal judge cited by the Washington Post who claimed there was not one “single case in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent terrorist attack,” when the threat of terrorism is used as an excuse by the NSA and its supporters to continue their massive degree of domestic spying.

Most bothersome is his determination to prove he is not just an “activist” or a “blogger” as his critics claim, but a full-fledged investigative journalist. Instead of letting his access to this information and his ability to effectively research the topic prove his point for him, he hammers the reader with vitriolic language and wild claims. For instance, he wants the reader to believe that the CIA’s release of classified information to the director of the movie Zero Dark Thirty was meant to “trumpet Obama’s greatest political triumph,” the assassination if Osama bin Laden. Even if Greenwald’s point wasn’t dripping with sarcasm, this is not the sort of language someone uses when trying to defend their journalistic integrity.

As expected, maybe even demanded of a book covering the topic of surveillance, Greenwald steals a quote from 1984, comparing Snowden’s information and the circumstances of 1984 with an eerily similar account of the way in which domestic surveillance is practiced and how it affects human behavior, a compelling study towards the middle of the book.

While the quote was particularly apt for the section it was used in, a better quote from Orwell’s classic might have been one describing how the “invention of print” has made it easier to “manipulate public opinion” until society has reached “complete uniformity of opinion on all subjects.” After reading this book, I felt like Greenwald’s rhetoric was carefully tugging at my own perception of the issue towards his brittle point of view.

The duty of a journalist is not to control public opinion and mold it to the writer’s image. The point of journalism is to spread information, the truth, to the masses, so they can be well-informed and develop their own conclusions and sense of morality.
We have an obligation as democratic citizens to study this information and the circumstances of its release, and this book is a fantastic resource for that. Read it, but do not believe Greenwald’s opinion on how this information should be interpreted. Do not believe the media’s, Washington’s or even mine. Do some research, think for yourself and decide what you feel is the truth.

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