Glenn Greenwald’s book is the most lucid examination of NSA surveillance in publication. It’s incredibly compelling. If you want to learn how the US government is spying on its citizens, it’s allies, and pretty much every single person in the entire world (all the time, every small bit of cyber communication) this book is a great first step. Greenwald is the perfect person to write about Edward Snowden’s massive intelligence leak–heck, he’s the one who broke the story in the first place.
The first part of the book describes exactly that: the logistics of how Snowden leaked and published the NSA documents. Greenwald explains his trip to China to meet Snowden and receive the documents. Even though you know the outcome of the story, Greenwald describes it with suspense. Greenwald defends that Snowden risked his life to publish the biggest document leak in the history of America. He was constantly being watched, and could have easily been killed at any second. It’s true to life spy drama. The former intelligence officer ended up contacting Greenwald because of his blog about Bush-era surveillance without a warrant. Snowden came into possession of such documents after a 10 year career building databases of mined data. Snowden had to help Greenwald set up a secure document exchange server, literally building a secret communication channel over encrypted instant message. The true scope of NSA surveillance is demonstrated by how covertly Snowden had to be in contacting Greenwald.
What Greenwald learns in the documents is the subject of the third and fourth chapters. A cursory summary includes the NSA’s monitoring of all electronic communication–”Collect it all” was the mantra of NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander. This phrase should be taken extremely literally. “Electronic communication” includes browser history, calls and texts, photos and documents, metadata about internet use (so, your literal second for second thought process on the net), your voice, your naughty videos, everything. If it is digital, the NSA has access to it. This is true for every US citizen, most every Chinese and Russian citizen, as well as every single government leader in the world. American allies like Germany, France and Britain, all have their government closely surveilled. “Subversives” like Muslim community leaders and civil rights activists are routinely blackmailed with collected data. The NSA hold people prisoner in places like Guantanomo Bay, and routinely bars US citizens from travel (the true terror of the “No Fly” list). This sounds like the annuls of conspiracy theory but it is not. This book presents proof that the NSA uses this data to blackmail combatants. They use data to track who you talk to, where you go, and what you buy; it’s exactly like a Philip K. Dick novel. Spycraft has evolved in the 21st century, and all of us are on the losing end of the fight.
The last two parts of the book detail the media’s reaction to these leaks and Greenwald’s commitment to fighting for digital privacy. Most media outlets covered the leaks. Some, stupidly, deemed Snowden, and even Greenwald, as traitors. Greenwald uses these instances to show, first hand, how the media lies in the hands of corporate interests, which are synonymous with military interests. The media has direct orders not to expose the government–and the government has many opportunities to soften the blow of any type of media oversight. Greenwald thus defends his commitment to releasing the stories, releasing them slowly, and ultimately releasing them in a way unlike practically any other story. Greenwald’s philosophy of journalism is an effective remedy to the white noise of the internet media landscape.
This is an important book. If you want to know what’s going on in the world around you, read it–because the NSA definitely knows what’s going on. As citizens, we probably can’t stop them right away, but learning about the digital privacy intrusion being committed by the US government is the first step toward digital freedom.