Saturday, December 20, 2014

Glenn Greenwald: No Place to Hide

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I didn't pick up this book on purpose. I care about surveillance and domestic spying, but I don't CARE about it. I know, terrible. Sadly, I've been a little bit cavalier about it, tending to see those who worry about the government spying us as a little bit of tinfoil hats. I wasn't so cavalier as to think that if I didn't have anything to worry about, that it was fine if the government spied on me (and it's not, and it's REALLY not, you'll find out if you read No Place to Hide), but I just... didn't really care. This book was prominently displayed at the library, though, and not all of my hold books had come in, so I picked it up. (I just looked back, and it turns out I've read another book by Greenwald.)

Greenwald's book is broken into roughly 3 sections: His time with Snowden and Laura Poitras (incidentally- just read a great profile of Poitras in the New Yorker), what Snowden leaked, and what the fallout means for journalism. Each section is quite intriguing and disturbing. In the first segment, we learn about Snowden in a new way- this is very much tied to what we learn about journalism in the third segment (also note that the book is not broken down exactly like this). Greenwald describes Snowden's history with the CIA and other intelligence contractors: he was a young man, recruited by the business, with a talent for data. When he realized something was wrong, he set out to do something about it. He collected and organized an immense archive- the documents he gave to Greenwald- and reached out to Greenwald and Poitras. Snowden made conscious and conscientious decisions each step of the way. He chose Hong Kong as the location for the meeting for a reason. He chose to give his name for a reason. He gave up his life and girlfriend and lots of money (dude made a great salary), because he believed the world should know about the surveillance. This is not the story we heard after the revelations- but Greenwald tells it, and I believe him.

Next, Greenwald walks us through the tip of the surveillance document iceberg. It's scary stuff, and again, it's just the beginning. One of the main goals of the NSA and related programs is to "collect it all." The agency literally wants to collect all of the data that we, Americans, generate: phone, internet, etc. If we make it, they want to have a way to collect it. This blog, the direct messages I'm having on twitter about wine tasting, my emails about Hannukah presents- all of it. There are photos of the actual documents- memos and powerpoint slides and they're disgusting. In many of them, the teams brag about how awesome it is to spy on American citizens. The papers also implicate the major corporate partners- companies we use every day, companies we depend on, now, as parts of our daily lives. Imagine opting out of a few of these and continuing your work and personal lives: gmail, facebook, hotmail (part of Microsoft), Yahoo!, Apple, skype, paltalk, YouTube, AOL... Greenwald explains that "even" if the NSA is just collecting metadata, sometimes metadata is more telling than content (something I didn't think about before). Metadata can tell you the context, whereas content cannot. Metadata can tell you the length of the phone call, the phone number, the location, the frequency of the phone call, etc. And there's no judicial oversight: The FISA court is a pre-given rubber stamp. I can't tell you all the details- there are a lot, and it's a quick read and it's worth reading.

So why do we care? The ultimate effect of surveillance is "to severely constrain individual choice. Even in the most intimate of settings, within the family, for example, surveillance turns insignificant actions into a source of self-judgement and anxiety, just by virtue of being observed." If we all have to become people who have "nothing to hide," then we all worry about our behavior, in our most private online lives. This is the most common argument I hear- so what? I don't have anything to hide- not my deal. This is what Greenwald calls "the implicit bargain that is offered to citizens: Pose no challenge and you have nothing to worry about. Mind your own business, and support or at least tolerate what we do, and you'll be fine." The problem is, convincing yourself that you won't be personally targeted is not that safe. Hendrik Hertzberg claimed in the New Yorker (I remember being a little shocked at this) when all this came out that we didn't really need to worry about surveillance being a super big threat to civil liberties. But here's the catch: "the true measure of a society's freedom is how it treats its dissidents and other marginalized groups, not how it treats good loyalists... Nor should the price of immunity be refraining from controversial or provocative dissent. We shouldn't want a society where the message is conveyed that you will be left alone only if you mimic the accommodating behavior and conventional wisdom of an establishment columnist. Beyond that, the sense of immunity felt by a particular group currently in power is bound to be illusory." (See: Democrat hatred of the NSA when Bush was in charge and the love affair with it under Obama. Feinstein!!) As with many books, though, I have a complaint here: I'm not sure what the next step is- I'm not sure what to DO about this. If gmail is part of my life, and my laptop is part of my life, what do I *DO about this now? How can I fix it? Who do I complain to when Obama, et al are going to lie/deny/continue no matter what I say?

Then we get to perhaps the most disturbing part (if that's possible!)- the treatment of Greenwald after the publication of the the papers. Greenwald and his partner, David Miranda, were basically treated like shit, which is terrible and awful, but it's also part of a bigger picture. Greenwald was thrown out by the journalism community. He was labeled a "blogger" and an "activist" by other journalists, and by important news outlets who are generally perceived as more liberal. The United States allows journalists to be the "fourth estate"- to bring to light things about the government that otherwise might remain hidden. As Greenwald writes, "the job of the press is to disprove the falsehoods that power invariably disseminates to protect itself. Without that that type of journalism, abuse is inevitable." Only, journalists and news outlets like the New York Times, the Washington Post and the New Yorker acted like Greenwald was a traitor, an opinionated so-and-so and beyond the pale. By doing this, they allowed the government to do so, as well. A private (non-journalist) citizen can be prosecuted for the leaks, while a journalist is generally protected by the constitution from revealing his sources. Instead of coming together and railing around this, Greenwald was tossed out. Again, this is not about Greenwald, it is about the failure of American journalism to do its job. This is a scary and telling effect of the surveillance itself. People are scared- people whose job it is to push back against the government are scared. This is reason for us to be scared.

This is a fast, important read. I'm not sure what to do next. My email may be legally being read, as I correspond daily with a Canadian classmate of mine. That bothers me. I have nothing to hide, and it still bothers me. I write frequently and critically about the government- so I could be a subject of... what? Am I paranoid? Realistic? Why would the government be caring about me? At this point maybe the better question is why WOULDN'T they want to know about me? They want to collect everything. Why aren't we doing something about this?


Luisa said...

I love this beyond words: LINK

And yet I am still on Twitter. At the moment, anyway.