No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State


For those who haven’t seen the documentary Citizenfour, I highly recommend it. Made during Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras’ initial meeting with Edward Snowden in May 2013, it plays almost like a thriller, and reveals Snowden in particular to be a far more thoughtful, methodical, and determined individual than I realized based on the limited media coverage that I saw during that time.

For those who have seen it, No Place To Hide is an excellent next step. Released a year after the meeting took place, Greenwald’s book is basically comprised of four parts. The first tells more or less the same story as in the documentary, but with much greater backstory, more information about Snowden himself, and a more complete picture of the struggles and to get the initial stories published. Again, this part reads almost like a spy novel, with everyone racing against the clock and paranoid about potential surveillance.

The second part of the book is a more in-depth examination of the content of some of the leaked documents, including many images of Powerpoint slides (revealing not just the extent of the government’s illegal wiretapping, but also the NSA’s terrible taste when it comes to presentations). These revelations will be quite familiar to anyone who has read the stories that followed the leak, although it is interesting to see some of the evidence that supports those stories in more detail.

The third part is a beautifully-written polemic about the importance of privacy, and in my opinion is the best part of the book. Going beyond just the facts and findings related to the specific situation in the US, Greenwald lays out a philosophical discussion about privacy, and the dangers of government overreach. Noting that many of those who speak with the least regard for people’s privacy actually work the hardest (and spend the most) to preserve their own, Greenwald suggests that “the desire for privacy is shared by us all as an essential, not ancillary, part of what it means to be human. We all instinctively understand that the private realm is where we can act, think, speak, write, experiment, and choose how to be.”

The most immediate concern about the kind of mass surveillance system that is currently in place might be the potential for misuse in undermining political activism (as in the case of the FBI’s wiretapping of Martin Luther King), but the fact is that even the knowledge that one’s communications are potentially being monitored can alter how people choose to act, as famously illustrated in Orwell’s, 1984. In Greenwald’s words, “regardless of how surveillance is used or abused, the limits it imposes on freedom are intrinsic to its existence.”

Greenwald also nicely deflates the most commonly used justification by proponents of mass surveillance: stopping terrorism. Not only is the risk of being killed by a terrorist attack minuscule, the list of atrocities committed in recent years which were not stopped, despite the current collect-it-all system, is long indeed. As for the 9/11 attacks, Greenwald argues that the government was already in possession of all the intelligence it needed to prevent the attacks, obtained through legal means, but failed to act on it. What was needed was not more metadata, but better coordination between agencies.

The final part of the book is a strong critique of the mainstream Western media for what Greenwald sees as excessive deference to official sources, and inadequate distance between them and the government that they are supposed to be keeping in check. It is very much in the spirit of Chomsky and Herman’s Manufacturing Consent, but also contains some beautiful examples of the way in which the news media makes use of stereotypical characterizations of people in framing events. Greenwald gives examples of how Snowden was defamed as being presumably unhinged or narcissistic, (as if no acts of rebellion were ever sane), and himself as being only a mere “blogger,” “activist,” or “former lawyer,” as opposed to a “journalist,” something which had potential consequences for not just the seriousness with which he was received, but also his potential protections under the law.

My take on the debate between privacy and surveillance is that a government, unchecked, will naturally tend toward corruption, abuse of power, and tyranny. A government that is given carte blanche to use all forms of modern surveillance, subject to only limited oversight, and then only through processes that are completely out of the public eye, will soon be using those powers for all manner of purposes, even if they were initially restricted or narrowly defined. We need robust protections under the law so that the critics and investigators and journalists and free-thinkers will continue to monitor and critique existing systems of power without fear of incarceration or worse.

As Greenwald notes, “the US government sees what everyone else in the world does, including its own population, while no one sees its own actions. It is the ultimate imbalance, permitting the most dangerous of all human conditions: the exercise of limitless power with no transparency or accountability.

Many in the current government take the hypocritical line that no individual in society has a right to their own privacy, but that the government should be entitled to operate in secret. We need to flip that equation, guaranteeing privacy protections for individuals, and ensuring that the government is truly operating with the consent of the governed.

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