When Glenn Greenwald first met Edward Snowden on the streets of Hong Kong, he was sure he had wasted his time flying halfway around the world. 'This guy? That young? No way he has the goods,' thought Greenwald.
Snowden had asked the Guardian journalist to wait for a man with a Rubik’s cube. But the man was so young that Greenwald wondered whether perhaps it was the NSA whistleblower’s son or his lover who had come to the initial meeting.
Any doubts about Snowden’s position inside the NSA, however, were squelched when the whistleblower began recounting his improbable rise from high school dropout/video gamer to master of offensive cyber attacks on behalf of the Obama administration, all of which he had documented methodically.
Throughout their first adrenaline-pounding days together, Greenwald’s mind was understandably boggled at the enormity of the scoop. Snowden, meanwhile, ended the day saying he needed to rest, joking, “I call the bottom bunk at GITMO [Guantánamo].” Asked why he could sleep so well, Snowden quipped, “I figure I have very few days left with a comfortable pillow, so I might as well enjoy them.”
Judging from Greenwald’s first-person account, Snowden radiated a calm and an orderly logic that were essential parts of his psychological makeup. It was a combination that made him both the NSA’s up-and-coming star and their ongoing nightmare.
Greenwald’s eloquent book about the Snowden case, No Place to Hide, is less about Snowden than the “tens of thousands” of documents that the 29-year-old copied, organised and handed off to Greenwald and a select group of other journalists.
Snowden told Greenwald he was inspired by Joseph Campbell’s book about mythological martyrs, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and said, “What keeps a person passive and compliant is fear of repercussions, but once you let go of your attachment to things that don’t ultimately matter – money, career, physical safety – you can overcome that fear.”
Snowden’s defence of internet freedom was both theoretical and experiential. “Basically the internet allowed me to experience freedom and explore my full capacity as a human being,” Snowden told Greenwald. “For many kids, the internet is a means of self-actualisation. It allows them to explore who they are and who they want to be, but that only works if we’re able to be private and anonymous, to make mistakes without them following us. I worry that mine was the last generation to enjoy that freedom.”
Greenwald – whose training as a lawyer and litigator make his arguments sound like they are expounded before a jury – is not naïve about the security threats of the post-Cold War era. Instead, he posits a fundamental American core value: Innocent until proven guilty. “The alternative to mass surveillance is not the complete elimination of surveillance. It is, instead, targeted surveillance, aimed only at those for whom there is substantial evidence to believe they are engaged in real wrongdoing,” he writes.
The most powerful sections of Greenwald’s book are not the individual documents but his accounts of the connivance of corporate America. The subservient role of Fortune 500 Corporations, especially Microsoft, allows a rare glimpse into the unspoken conspiracies that may never be written or seen but are felt by all. Microsoft, writes Greenwald, with ample evidence to back up the claim, spent months redesigning software to facilitate penetration by NSA spies.
Snowden meanwhile is depicted as a wise ascetic, a man willing to go down on the sword for the greater good. "I could not do this without accepting the risk of prison. You can't come up against the world's most powerful intelligence agencies and not accept the risk,” Snowden tells Greenwald. “If they want to get you, over time, they will." Usually such dire predictions are dismissed as paranoid rants. In this case they are the levelheaded analysis of a former top US intelligence operative.
It is true, Greenwald notes, that the Snowden revelations triggered a “global debate about the value of individual privacy in the digital age and prompted challenges to America’s hegemonic control over the internet.” But how much of the dirty, nitty-gritty detail will stick?
The Snowden documents highlight an unprecedented sabotage of internet privacy. In operation after operation, the documents show US officials lurching from one technical challenge to another, never asking, “Should we?” and obsessing with “getting it all." Referring to US intelligence, Snowden states, "We hack everyone everywhere. We like to make a distinction between us and the others. But we are in almost every country in the world. We are not at war with these countries."
The damage to human creativity, the subversion of personal privacy and the overall betrayal of human rights from such intrusive spying will never fully be calculated. But even the small fraction of the Snowden papers thus far made public have shown that our intrinsic need to communicate, to share, to blog/tweet/upload has ushered in a radical new balance of power. Whether Snowden has stopped the forces of surveillance, merely slowed them or allowed them to hone their tools has yet to be decided. In No Place to Hide, Glenn Greenwald makes a persuasive case that it is a battle that has engulfed us all, and one that has not yet ended.