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

Image of No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State
Release Date: 
May 13, 2014
Metropolitan Books
Reviewed by: 

“In the past, mass violation of privacy was technically difficult but now is easy. . . . With computers and data centers mediating Internet and phone traffic, the stakeout now is permanent.”

Covering the first meeting of Glenn Greenwald with Kenneth Snowden and its aftermath, No Place to Hide reads like a spy novel, which it is, but a true one. It also has a hurried and breathless pace, and its publication also appears to have been hurried. The endnotes and index aren’t part of the book but are instead on Glenn Greenwald’s website.

No Place to Hide shows that spy “tradecraft” in real life happens just like in the movies. Reporters, movie directors and “cut-outs” act like secret agents, carrying incriminating documents on thumb drives through airports on their way to meetings in with strangers in foreign countries. The reader discovers that the logistics of secure communications (known in the trade as operational security or “opsec”) is truly difficult to do.

The reader is presented with a variety of codewords, for example NOFORN (No Foreigners), which is used on documents to identify what may be shared with whom. Other codewords are used to identify the names of projects, the most consequential being PRISM. Through PRISM the NSA monitors 73% of all U.S. Internet traffic, targets Google and Facebook, accesses cell phone metadata and Internet traffic of airplanes. The NSA collects this data both by official request and by surreptitious taking.

The first reaction to the “outing” of PRISM was that the communications and technology companies involved denied any knowledge of it. As the denials were couched in legalistic terms, they appeared to be non-denial denials. We now know that the NSA was secretly acting through data feeds managed by the FBI.

Glenn Greenwald explains to the reader that the origins of No Place to Hide began in 2005 when he started a political blog, which lead to his realization that the President of the United States has virtually unlimited authority, including breaking the law to keep the nation safe. That realization expressed on his blog, along with his 2006 book on presidentially ordered wiretapping prompted Edward Snowden to contact him to reveal NSA wrongdoing.

Snowden’s job as a contractor for the NSA as computer system administrator permitted him access to computers that held secrets. By handing NSA secrets over to Glenn Greenwald, Snowden expressed a desire that the story to be published journalistically, something that has caused Greenwald to receive no end of grief from competing journalists and news agencies.

Most reporters, news editors, and the general public have little knowledge of computer administration and computer security. The fact is that data on a computer cannot be hidden from the system administrator—secret or not, in effect any system administrators of any secure computer is a potential Snowden. Yet the job of system administrator is so critical, that if it were eliminated, computer systems would soon become unusable.

The principal takeaway of No Place to Hide is that the U.S. government has legitimized the violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment on a massive scale. The three points that Glenn Greenwald wants to make clear are: 1) the claim of the CIA and NSA that it does what it does to prevent terrorist attacks is a pretext to keep doing what they want to do, whatever that is. 2) indiscriminate data collection swamps spy agencies with so much data that they don’t know what to do with it, and 3) exploits used by the NSA depend on an insecure Internet that can also be used by others.

The difference that makes a difference in terms of legality is that targeted surveillance of individuals is ok but mass surveillance of everyone is not. The phrase “mass surveillance of everyone” may sound hysterical, paranoid, and technically infeasible but it is not.  Our dependence on technology in mediating electronic communication is the key to feasibility. That is, if you use the Internet, a telephone, whether wired or wireless in the U.S. and in most of the world, computers will be used to collect and store data as part of facilitating that communication, and the data can be accessed and monitored.

Massive surveillance has happened before. In the U.S. in the mid 1970’s the FBI labeled a half-million Americans as potential “subversives” and routinely spied on people based on their political beliefs, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lennon of the Beatles. The title of No Place to Hide comes from a statement made in 1975 by Senator Frank Church, member of the Senate Select Committee to Study Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Operation.

The full quote is, “The United States government has perfected a technological capability that enables us to monitor the messages that go through the air . . . That capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything—telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide.”

Through Snowden’s documents Glen Greenwald offers proof that NSA officials lied to Congress, gives proof that NSA spied on American citizens in bulk, and proof that bulk surveillance has nothing to do with national security. Here are a few of the revelations:

  • Supply-chain interdiction. Commercial electronics such as network servers and routers intended to be sold overseas are interdicted at secure facilities where U.S. government agents install beacons that sends data back to the NSA.
  • Stellar Wind. When a government agency detects another government agency stepping outside the law, the activity will be labeled “Stellar Wind,” the classified label that prevents intervention, allowing illegal practices to continue.
  • Data sharing. The U.S. government shares data collected on its citizens with spy agencies of other countries. The NSA has permission to spy on U.K. citizens, and permission from Australia to spy on Australian citizens.
  • Wiretapping. Snowden claims, “I, sitting at my desk, could wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the President, if I had a personal email.”
  • NSA’s customers. Customers of NSA data include economic agencies - U.S. trade representatives, the Department of Agriculture, Treasury, and Commerce.
  • Targeting. Surveillance targets include financial institutions and heads of foreign energy corporations.
  • Oversight. The FISA court that oversees the legality of spy operations is cosmetic, providing the appearance of legality but is really subservient to the NSA. The U.S. congressional intelligence committee serves not as a check on power but as a booster and instead of reform Congress acts to codify (make legal) illegal practices that are exposed.

How has this come about? The rationale for the good-guys to break the law and make “secret law” comes out of the belief that the law provides sanctuary to the “bad-guys”, so the law itself becomes the problem. It’s all very Machiavellian. Greenwald reminds us that power tempts abuse of the kind where someone else’s personal information is not used for economic gain but for political purposes such as destroying the credibility of opponents, journalists and human rights activists through coercion and blackmail. Abuse of political power can become self-entrenched and self-protecting—the powerful will keep the knowledge of abuse secret, change laws to make it legal, and suppress dissent against it.

Though much is made clear, much remains murky. Edward Snowden gave classified documents to Glenn Greenwald who made copies and gave a copy to his employer, the U.K. based newspaper the Guardian, which shared documents with The New York Times. As the U.K. has no constitutional guarantee of freedom of the press, the British intelligence and security agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) demanded the Guardian to hand over all copies of files it received from Snowden. In some sort of compromise, the disk drives that contained the file at the Guardian were destroyed in place.

As there were other copies stored elsewhere, the destruction was considered by some to be no more than “Security Theater” and even counter-productive as the NSA claims that it does not know all of the documents that Snowden took the disks’ destruction at the Guardian prevented any forensic investigation.

The end chapters have more of a philosophical and “Big Picture” nature. Greenwald points out the hypocrisy where your personal life is grist for Facebook’s mill but a CEO’s personal life is “mind your own business”, and points out the hypocrisy in psychology, where dissent is labeled a personality disorder but obedience is not. There is also a double standard on publishing leaks. When leaking done by the government then it’s good but when done by others then not so much.

The double bind is that although a classified document may not be justifiably classified, there is no clear process for having a document’s justification for classification verified (Federal judges tend to take a hands-off stance on this), and as a consequence any document that describes abuse can be classified to prevent its use as evidence. On top of that there is “secret law” being used to make Executive branch decisions unreviewable by Federal judges.

There is also an ongoing legal debate over whom to prosecute for leaks—not just the leaker but the receiver of those leaks. Any reporter in the U.S. who receives classified information risks being labeled a criminal, something that puts limits on investigative journalism.

Greenwald sees an unjust targeting by the Department of Justice on journalists who work with whistleblowers as going after the messenger instead of the message. In the book he expresses his fear of returning to the U.S, though this reviewer has since seen his likeness on TV apparently in the U.S., being interviewed promoting this book.

Greenwald also has concerns with mainstream media on both the right and the left, claiming that the mainstream media has sold its soul to the highest bidder. Reporters who work for, act for, and are paid by large corporations are expected to attack those who are in disfavor with corporate owners and sponsors. Those who do as they are told are rewarded, and influential journalists have become multimillionaires, while reporters who refuse to toe the line are marked as troublemakers.

This review was still in preparation after the book’s release and comes late to the game. Through Greenwald’s current employer The Intercept, additional documents and revelations have been released and PRISM continues to be in the news. The most shocking revelation from The Intercept concerns NSA’s XKEYSCORE project. XKEYSCORE is a computer program that decides which traffic to keep from all tapped sources tracking everyone who matches some trigger criteria, for example if a person clicked on the techy website for the Linux Journal, or the culture website BoingBoing, that person would be put into a list for extra monitoring. Why am I reminded of Animal House’s “double secret probation”?

In the past, mass violation of privacy was technically difficult but now is easy. Visiting the Linux Journal website might on the surface be no more private than visiting a store but the store might or might not have video monitoring, video tapes may or may not have been erased and reused, and a real-life clerk might or might not remember you.

With computers and data centers mediating Internet and phone traffic, the stakeout now is permanent. A visit to the Linux Journal is automatically recorded by an ISP (Internet Service Provider) that maintains a log watched by the NSA, where there is a computer program dedicated to watching you. And as there is no way to get off NSA’s watch list, the NSA is watching you forever.