Twelve months on from the first exposé from whistleblower Edward Snowden, there are two things the process has taught us. First, we know about the manner in which we are being monitored. Indeed, the more we know about the work of the surveillance agencies, the more shocking it is.
Second, we know that in this key story of our time, it was good old journalism that won out – the journalism of working a long-term story over years, attracting sources through trust and respect, and when the leak of the century (so far, at least) appears, having the understanding and the reputation to make the most of it.
Now, two books – No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald and The Snowden Files by Luke Harding – help us along in understanding the story, both the facts of it and the journalism that went into making it.
At one level, the surveillance story is a simple one – given the technical capacity, the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the related security agencies in the so-called “Five Eyes” (including Australia and New Zealand) embarked on a plan to electronically capture, file and sort all electronic interactions by everyone.
This ambition was based on something we all know about technology – if you can do it, then it will be done. And the unfolding of the ambition tells us something else about government-held data – if it can be used, it will be used.
The revelations in the Snowden papers (repeated in these books) demonstrate that the surveillance is breathtaking in its scope – a genuine attempt at a 21stcentury Panopticon. As Greenwald notes, as of mid- 2012, the NSA was processing more than 20 billion communications events (both internet and telephone) from around the world each day.
Broadly, the information collected falls into two types: content – listening to people’s phone calls, reading their emails or chat logs, browsing histories and searches – and metadata.
The US government has sought to defend the surveillance by exploiting this difference. Yet the Snowden documents show that, in many ways, metadata is more valuable to the surveillance agencies and, in many ways, more intrusive.
Text can be hard to sort and usable information can be hard to find. Finding usable information can be like looking for a needle in the haystack – the very metaphor used by defenders of the program to assuage privacy fears. But metadata lets surveillance agencies triangulate the needle. The metadata collected includes who you communicate with (by phone, email, chat, etc), when you do it, how long you do it for and, often, where you are – and who else is there with you. And being already in data form, it is easy to manipulate to establish patterns about any individual or group of individuals.
As Greenwald says: “When the government knows everyone you call and everyone who calls you, plus the exact length of all those phone conversations; when it can list every one of your email correspondents and every location from where your emails were sent, it can create a remarkably comprehensive picture of your life, your associations and your activities, including some of your most intimate and private information.”
Like so much in the post 9-11 world, the justification of the surveillance was to prevent terrorism. Yet the Snowden documents show that the NSA was keen to serve what it describes as its “customers” among policy makers and law enforcement.
As a result, the surveillance was also being used for economic and diplomatic espionage, and the disclosures caused tensions from the US and Germany, through Canada and Brazil, to Australia and Indonesia.
As Snowden stated, “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.”
As its subtitle – The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man – suggests, Harding’s book is much more about Snowden himself. It starts with his story and the life and life choices that took him to Hong Kong, determined to expose the surveillance he had been working in. He gives us the characters – Snowden, the journalists, the editors, the lawyers – who brought the story out in what has been without doubt the journalistic event of this century so far.
Harding, as an English journalist (he works for The Guardian), gives greater detail about the role of the British (junior) partners, particularly the General Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).
Greenwald’s book is subtitled Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, and tells us much less about the characters and more about the pattern of surveillance that Snowden revealed. Yet, if his information about Snowden is briefer, it benefits from the sort of deep personal interaction that comes from the relationship and the source.
There’s a passion in his characterisation of Snowden and a profound appreciation of the courage of the source. And, of course, he brings a unique perspective to that appalling coda to the initial stories – the detention of his partner, David Miranda, at Heathrow Airport under anti-terrorism laws.
Greenwald is more upbeat than Harding about the possibility of reform, referring to a late 2013 Pew poll in the US where, for the first time, Americans considered surveillance a greater threat than terrorism.
Harding, on the other hand, has seen first-hand the far more draconian responses from the British authorities and the failure of the British courts to provide fair treatment to David Miranda.
Perhaps what made this story possible was that the globalising of a handful of large media voices enabled the Guardian US to mesh the more rambunctious traditions of the British press with the US first amendment. And it was in that sliver of an opening that this key story of our age was able to come crashing through.
No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State by Glenn Greenwald, published by Penguin, RRP $29.99.
The Snowden Files: the Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man by Luke Harding, published by Allen & Unwin, RRP $29.99
Christopher Warren is federal secretary of the MEAA
Anna Crichton is an award-winning artist based in New Zealand, annacrichton.tumblr.com; this image was first published in Metro magazine