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

No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State by Glenn Greenwald Thumbnail
Watch a video version of this article on YouTube.

Glenn Greenwald is a former law and civil rights attorney. He is now a journalist and author. His first communication from Edward Snowden was on 1st December 2012. At the time Snowden did not reveal who he was, simply signing off emails as ‘Cincinnatus’. Cincinnatus was the Roman farmer who was appointed dictator of Rome, defeated all her enemies before voluntarily giving up all power and returning to farming.

Snowden would also not divulge any information until Greenwald installed PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) encryption for his emails. Eventually in May 2013 they spoke online using OTR (Off-the-record) chat, an encrypted chat program for talking online securely.

Snowden asked if Greenwald would go to Hong Kong to meet him. He agreed. Snowden said his goal was to spark a worldwide discussion about privacy, internet freedom and the dangers of state surveillance. He also wanted to identify himself as the person behind the disclosures he was making.

Before travelling to Hong Kong, Greenwald wanted to see some documents so he finally installed PGP with some other encryption software and received what were highly confidential communications from the NSA (National Security Agency). He showed them to selected people from the Guardian newspaper to get them on board and set off for Hong Kong with Laura Poitras, the independent filmmaker and Ewan MacAskill, a long-time Guardian reporter.

On the plane Greenwald read several other documents, including one secret court ruling which allowed the NSA to secretly and indiscriminately collect telephone records of tens of millions of Americans. These files documented clear proof that NSA officials had directly and repeatedly lied to congress about the agency’s activities. It was on the plane in one of the files Greenwald first learnt his source’s name — Edward Joseph Snowden.

On Sunday 2nd June they arrived in Hong Kong. They met Snowden the next morning at his hotel; he revealed he would be carrying a Rubik’s Cubed to identify himself. The initial meeting took place on the 10th floor after Snowden had led them to his hotel room. He advised them to remove the battery from any mobile phones they had, claiming the U.S. government can remotely activate phones and use them as listening devices. If unable to remove the battery he said they could put a phone in a fridge or mini-bar to muffle any sound, which they did.

Greenwald initially asked questions for five hours straight. Snowden’s answers were intelligent, rational and clear. After 9/11 he had become more patriotic and enlisted in the army in 2004. After breaking both legs in a training accident he had to leave the military. During his time in the military he had become disillusioned about the real purpose of the Iraq war, hearing more talk about killing Arabs then about liberating people. He went to work for a federal agency, first as a security guard, and then in 2005, a technical expert for the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency). Between 2007 and 2010 he worked in Geneva for the CIA, deployed undercover. Here he learnt and saw things that made him realise that what the U.S. government really does in the world was very different from what he’d always been taught.

In 2010 he returned to the NSA working for Dell as a contractor for the agency in Japan. Here he was really disturbed by what he saw. He could watch drones in real time, and watch entire villages to see what everyone was doing. He also saw the NSA track people’s internet activity as they typed.

In 2011 he again worked for Dell, this time back for the CIA in Maryland, USA. Here he realised that the NSA were building a system whose goal was the elimination of all privacy, globally. It was this realisation that made him determined to be a whistle-blower. He was moved to Hawaii where in 2012 he downloaded documents for the world to see and took another job in 2013 with Booz Allen Hamilton, a defence contractor, which gave him access to other sets of documents related to NSA spying and secret monitoring of the entire telecommunications infrastructure in the USA.

Edward Snowden asked Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras to vet all material carefully and to use their journalistic judgement to only publish the documents that the public should see, and that can be revealed without harm to any innocent people.

Greenwald wrote four separate stories for immediate publication:

  1. A secret order forcing Verizon to hand over all telephone records of all Americans
  2. The history of the Bush warrantless eavesdropping program
  3. BOUNDLESS INFORMANT (NSA’s data tracking program)
  4. The PRISM program

As soon as the Guardian published the first story the impact was instant and enormous, becoming the lead story on every national news broadcast that evening. An unnamed senator confirmed the Verizon telephone record handover had been happening for years and concerned all major telecommunication companies, not just Verizon.

The next story that was published was on PRISM: the program that allowed the NSA access to customers’ communications from companies such as Google, Facebook, Apple, Yahoo!, YouTube, Skype and others. The secret arrangements between the companies and the NSA were denied by the tech companies, despite documents showing the program was in operation since 2007.

On Thursday, day 5 in Hong Kong, a security device in Snowden’s Hawaii home had alerted him to the fact that two NSA employees had made a visit, searching for him. It was decided to release an article introducing Edward Snowden to the world which was published on Sunday 9th June by the Guardian, including a twelve minute video interview with him. The article not only told his story but conveyed his motives.

It was only a matter of time until reporters found Snowden’s hotel — and him — in Hong Kong. With the help of two human rights lawyers, Snowden attempted to leave the hotel undetected. He managed to change his appearance and get to a safe house. He was now the world’s most wanted man.

As of mid-2012, the NSA was processing more than 20 billion communications (internet and phone) events from around the world, every day. This includes intercepting 1.7 billion communications from Americans. Britain’s GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) also collects large quantities of communications data, upwards of 50 billion events per day, and growing.


Current Providers

  • Microsoft
  • Google
  • Yahoo!
  • Facebook
  • Paltalk
  • YouTube
  • Skype
  • AOL
  • Apple

What NSA collects

  • Email
  • Chat — video and voice
  • Videos
  • Photos
  • Stored data
  • VoIP
  • File transfers
  • Video conferencing
  • Notification of target activity, e.g. logins
  • Online Social Networking details

The NSA has indicated in one of the documents that they have inserted malware called ‘Quantum Insertion’ on over 50,000 computers, allowing them to view every keystroke and each screen viewed on the affected machines. The New York Times have claimed the NSA has infected over 100,000 computers. It can manage to infect the computer even if it is not connected to the internet.

The NSA works closely with the other members of the Five Eyes group (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom). They share most of their surveillance activities. NSA’s closest ally is the British GCHQ. Over 3 years, the U.S. government has paid £100million to GCHQ as an incentive for them to support the NSA’s surveillance agenda.

As well as warrantless mass surveillance of whole populations, the NSA has spied on heads of state, including targeting the personal phone of German chancellor Angela Merkel and using a program to get the UN secretary general’s talking points prior to a meeting with President Obama.

Among other devices, NSA intercepts and tampers with routers and servers built by Cisco to direct internet traffic to the agency’s repositories.

Since 2007, the NSA have been using a program called X-KEYSCORE which allows you to target any person for monitoring, providing you know their personal email address. This includes all content of their emails, and any they’re cc’d in or mentioned in, in the body of the text.

The NSA can also view any user’s information on social networks such as Facebook or Twitter, including messages, chats and private posts.

GCHQ also paid special attention to weaknesses in Facebook allowing them to view information, despite users locking down their accounts using privacy and security settings.

Many ordinary citizens who dismiss the value of privacy express contradiction by having passwords on their email or social network accounts, locks on their bathroom doors and seal the envelopes containing their letters.

Many who say privacy is for people who have something to hide are not keen to have video cameras in their own homes.

The desire for privacy is shared by all, even hypocrites disparaging it. Privacy is a core condition of being a free person.

Everyone has something to hide but privacy is relational so it is dependent on your audience. You don’t always want to tell your boss you’re job hunting. You don’t want to spill about your love life to every family member.

When it comes to whistle-blowing, an old ploy that often works is to discredit the messenger as a misfit to discredit the message.

Glenn Greenwald was discredited by numerous people, including questions over his occupation as a journalist.

  • Times reporter — “something of a loner”, “has trouble keeping friends”
  • New York Daily News reporter — investigated past including debts and tax liability
  • Times reporter — investigated past tax debt
  • New York Daily News — ran story from 10 years ago over a claim his dog was too heavy according to building bylaws
  • New York Times — headlines described as “blogger” and “anti-surveillance activist”, not journalist or reporter

There are formal and unwritten legal protections offered to journalists, not available to anyone else. Being labelled an activist could have criminal consequences.

There were calls to prosecute from:

  • New York Republican congressman
  • Washington Post journalist and former Bush speechwriter
  • A general and former leader of the NSA and then CIA

Edward Snowden was also discredited.

  • CBS news host — “Narcissistic”
  • New Yorker journalist — “a grandiose narcissist… deserves to be in prison”
  • Washington Post journalist — “cross dressing little red riding hood”
  • New York Times columnist — “could not successfully work his way through community college”
  • Politico journalist — “a loser”
  • Democratic congresswoman — “a coward”

For many months Glenn Greenwald received calls and emails from almost every U.S. TV program, news personality and famous journalist asking to talk to Edward Snowden. He refused all media invitations, wanting to keep the focus on NSA surveillance, not him: strange behaviour for a so-called narcissist.

The Guardian had only a fraction of the full archive Edward Snowden had passed on in Hong Kong. Despite this, GCHQ officials had travelled to the Guardian newsroom in London to seize the archive and learn what Edward Snowden had passed on. Instead the Guardian agreed to destroy all relevant hard drives, with GCHQ officials overseeing the process. The Guardian intended for all this to be done without reporting it. The alternative was to force out the threat from the government who were trying to shut down the paper.

The one fear Edward Snowden said he had about coming forward, was that his revelations would not interest anybody and that he would have risked imprisonment and changing his life for nothing. The effects from this story have meant that his fear has not been realised.

He has reminded us all of the effect one ordinary person in all outward respects can have to change the world. His revelations through his whistle-blowing have helped promote the human capacity to make decisions and reason. His single act of conscience has changed the course of history.

Buy the book No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, which helps me provide more great content for free.