books book review

No Place to Hide

reviewed by T Nelson

book review

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

Reviewed by T Nelson

I f you don't want anyone to know about it, don't do it.” This Chinese proverb, found in every dictionary produced by the Chinese government, was echoed by Google CEO Eric Schmidt when asked about Google's data collection practices. It's a chilling expression of man's drive to control man's behavior, and the value of information in achieving it. Snowden's revelations show us that the American government has the same attitude as Schmidt.

This book is Glenn Greenwald's story of how he obtained the documents about widespread NSA spying from Edward Snowden, Greenwald's reactions to them, and how Greenwald believes the story reflects on the relationship between the government and journalists .. like Greenwald, who, he assures us, is no mere blogger, but a very important journalist.

The book has many problems. There's very little detail about what the NSA was actually doing. There's little historical background or philosophical or legal analysis. To Greenwald, it's a story of the fierce journalist versus big government, and he injects himself into the story, talking more about how it has affected him than how it affected Snowden. There is no index and no list of acronyms. In my copy, pages 181-196 are duplicated. It's not until page 239 that he mentions the incident where the GCHQ invaded the offices of the Guardian, ordered them to smash their hard drives, and watched while they meekly complied.

More importantly, Greenwald seems to have a limited understanding of the technology. This is a highly technical subject, and Greenwald, who is neither a cryptographer nor a computer expert, is out of his depth. But it's the technology—the facts—that we need to understand.

Some of what the NSA does can be deduced from the powerpoints shown in this book. Here is a table:

Collection method Probable Meaning
Implants Special chips implanted in routers and computers
Collection of computer screens Virtual screen dumps after hacking into a computer
Magnetic emanations Inductive wiretaps or capturing emissions from a CRT monitor
LAN implants Surveillance devices plugged into a network
Optical collection from screens Hidden cameras
Imaging of hard drive Copying all the information off your disk
PBX Switch Hacking into PBX telephone switch
AO's efforts to enable crypto NSA can detect when you install cryptography on your computer
Passive collection from antennas Collecting data from microwave phone relays and wireless LANs
Customs opportunities Implanting taps in routers going overseas (and coming in?)
Laser printer collection Collecting print-outs and implanting taps in a printer
USB hardware tap Installing a wireless tap on a USB port
Bidirectional host tap Software on a network to circumvent encryption

If viewing on a cell phone, drag table left or right to scroll.

Many phone calls are still transmitted through microwave links, satellite links, and underwater cables. These, Greenwald suggests, are routinely intercepted. Internet traffic is probably intercepted by taps on the optical fibers.

Most of the big Internet companies (Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft, etc.), says Greenwald, have cooperated with the NSA to permit access to the data that passes through their systems. The NSA doesn't just look at your cat pictures and read your online book reviews (as interesting they may be). It's much more than just performing an unwanted backup of your computer. Their computers build a profile on you, and you may be targeted for a surreptitious search, an IRS audit, or worse, if the computer decides you deserve it.

Greenwald says the NSA is mainly collecting metadata, but subsequent revelations have indicated that they probably collect a lot of content as well. Most likely, phone content would be speech-recognized and stored as text. The news reports say the data are collected, but not accessed unless the computer flags you as a threat.

Greenwald also doesn't mention that the NSA is known to pass some of this information to law enforcement. Since the information was obtained illegally, the police and FBI can't use it in court. They have to “scrub” it by obtaining the same evidence from other sources, using the information as a guide. Using this trick, they can avoid the appearance of illegality.

This is obviously not unique to the USA, but Snowden showed that most of what we previously suspected of the feds was true. With a simple command they can get a list of every website you visited, every document you viewed, and copies of all your email messages. The NSA also uses endpoint collection, which means they have backdoors or hacks into a computer's operating system, which renders encryption useless.

Snowden also said the government can remotely turn on your cell phone, even when it's powered down, and put it in a state that appears to be off, but is actually transmitting audio and possibly video on frequencies the ordinary citizen is not allowed to scan, which means we can't detect it. They can monitor every keystroke on your PC. (And, it seems, turn off your electricity as well, which just happened as I was typing this. Now, where did I put that special hat?)

One might argue that, in this age of terrorism, we need this now more than ever. But as government gets more powerful, the terrorists become more powerless, but so do the citizens. Thus, it's ironic that Greenwald would be so much more comfortable with leftists, who traditionally advocate big government. He praises MSNBC and compares himself to Daniel Ellsberg. He goes out of his way to tell us he's gay. But whatever his motivation, he helped reveal the truth. That is a noble cause for any journalist. The Guardian also deserves praise.

NSA employees are undoubtedly highly patriotic, but the organization has tunnel vision. This prevents them from recognizing that what they are doing is illegal, unethical, and unconstitutional, and Greenwald is right to be outraged by it. The NSA is trying to use computational power instead of brain power to eliminate human fallibility. What they want is to punch a button and out pops the names of the bad guys, as defined by some infallible computer program, along with the names of all their associates, who can then be rounded up.

This thinking affects all aspects of our lives, but it's especially dangerous when government does it, because it can easily go horribly wrong. The real danger is that so many people see no problem with that.

jun 15 2014; updated jun 21 2014

Reviewed on this page:

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

On the Internet, no one can tell whether you're a dolphin or a porpoise
Reviewed by T Nelson

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