Book review: No Place To Hide by Glenn Greenwald

I finally finished reading “No Place To Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State” by Glenn Greenwald. Glenn, a respected and fiercely independent journalist, along with CITIZENFOUR documentarian Laura Poitras (winner of an Oscar this year), were the two people Ed Snowden sought out to handle the release of the documents he took from the NSA, detailing the massive surveillance regime of both the United States (NSA) and Britain (GCHQ).

This book has four distinct stories to tell. The first two chapters detail how Ed was able to contact Glenn and Laura and manage to convince them that he was for real, and then the harrowing tale of how they met him in China and walked away with tons of classified documents that detailed the vast array of surveillance tools and programs used by the NSA and GCHQ. These two chapters read like a spy novel – a real page-turner. And yet, they’re just the setup for the real meat of the book. (I can’t wait to see CITIZENFOUR.)

The next three chapters cover three very distinct aspects of the situation. The third chapter, aptly named “Collect It All”, goes into detail on the surveillance techniques and processes, outlining the astounding depth and breadth of what these agencies are capturing. You’ve read a little of this in the mainstream press, but until you see these details laid out, you just can’t appreciate what’s really been going on. I actually found this chapter to be a little too heavy on the details – at times it was a little dry – but frankly there’s just no other way to convey the enormity of these surveillance programs.

The fourth chapter called “The Harm of Surveillance” does a fantastic job of explaining why constant, clandestine scrutiny and observation have such a profoundly adverse affect on the human psyche and democracy in general. This chapter methodically debunks the classic rebuttals to the worry over Big Brother such as “I’m not doing anything wrong so I have nothing to hide” or “if they want to listen to my boring life, then they’re welcome”, including some poignant references from U.S. history. It explains how the constant threat of being watched and overheard has a chilling effect not only on dissidents and adversarial journalists, but also on everyday citizens (the concept of the Panopticon that I covered in my book, as well). I think this may well be the most important chapter of the book for the average reader – to understand clearly why it’s actually counterproductive to trade privacy for “security” – in fact, it’s a false choice. These programs are a two-way mirror, allowing those in power to see everything that the governed are doing while blocking the governed from seeing what their elected representatives are up to. (You can also see a great TED talk from Glenn on this topic, but it doesn’t diminish the value of reading this chapter.)

The final chapter, “The Fourth Estate”, comes off as a bit of rant against many modern journalists and their organizations, often by name. This is understandable given the harsh treatment Glenn and his partner have received from many of his “colleagues” and the governments of the United States and Britain. However, he’s absolutely right in calling out the failing of U.S. political journalism and how cozy mainstream journalists, editors, pundits and producers have become with the people and institutions they are claiming to be holding accountable. If I were in his position, I would have a very hard time not taking it all personally… well, because a lot of it has been very personal. But the important takeaway is not how Glenn in particular was treated, but how the media have abdicated their solemn duty to be a check on these powers, to be adversarial when necessary, to be stand up for truth and justice, to challenge authority and power, to see the bigger picture and put things in proper historical context.

Bottom line: I heartily recommend this book for everyone. I wish some of the personal aspects would have been saved for a second book because it can be too easy to view his analysis as sour grapes. I happen to agree that he, his partner, Laura and Ed are being wrongly persecuted and maligned – but addressing these grievances in the book taints the more general arguments he makes. But look past that – just because he’s pissed off doesn’t make him wrong – he’s not wrong. This is an important book and essential reading for anyone who believes in true democracy (and the 1st and 4th amendments to the U.S. Constitution).