Amy and I were going to have a bunch of friends over to our house today but we got rained out. So, I read Glenn Greenwald’s book No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State instead.
It was outstanding – 5 stars.
Let’s start with the punchline from Warren and Brandeis in their 1890 Harvard Law Review article The Right to Privacy where they assert that the right to privacy is primarily a “right to be left alone.”
Ponder that for a moment.
It’s a hot topic in my household since Amy did her thesis at Wellesley on the right to privacy. At the same time, I’ve been very open with my belief over the last decade that there is no more privacy, that the government tracks everything we do, and if you build your worldview around the notion that you have privacy, you are going to be disappointed. I guess I’ve been watching too much 24.
Now, this doesn’t mean I don’t think one should have a right to privacy. If I believed that, the philosophical arguments in our house would escalate dramatically. Rather, I gave up my own belief that I have privacy. And, I’ve felt for a long time that society is in a very unstable situation with regard to data, data privacy, and personal privacy. And I think this is going to get much, much worse as the machines further integrate themselves into everything we do.
So I view the problem of privacy at a meta-level. And as a result, I find books like Greenwald’s fascinating, powerful, and deeply insightful into the cause, effect, reaction, and second-order effect of humans trying to process what is going on, defend their position, and advance their perspective.
I thought Greenwald did a particularly good job of three things in this book:
- Painting a clear picture of Snowden, his character, and Greenwald’s experience interacting with him.
- Addressing the actions of the NSA that should cause outrage, or at least a deep, thoughtful conversation about what the appropriate boundaries for government surveillance in the United States.
- Demonstrating the tactics of the US government, especially through media which is sympathetic to the US government, in shifting the story from the main event (the NSA disclosures) to a continual campaign of discrediting the participants (Snowden and Greenwald).
It doesn’t matter which side of the issue you are on. If you feel like calling Snowden, and possible Greenwald, a traitor, you should read this book carefully. If you believe they are whistleblowers, or even heroes, you should read this book carefully. If you believe the government never lies, or always lies, you should read this book carefully. If you believe journalists aren’t caught up in the game, are objective, and have integrity, you should read this book carefully.
I’ve felt for a long time that it’s a real cop-out to call Snowden a traitor or just react to the surface of what is going on here. There are some really profound forces at work that will impact the United States, our notion of democracy, and privacy, for many years. And the second order effects, including how other nations view the United States and the other four of the Five Eyes or the implications on global companies headquartered in the United States, will impact us for many years.
And, as a bonus, there are lots of revealing PowerPoint charts in the book from the NSA documents which, in addition to driving Snowden and Greenwald’s points home, demonstrate that the US Government needs some courses in making PowerPoint slides nicer.
I was shocked for a few minutes last week after I heard that Lavabit committed corporate suicide. I pondered it for a while and then forgot, but two things this weekend caused me to remember it.
The first was the suicide of Cylon Number One (John) near the end of Battlestar Galactica. I didn’t expect it at all (there were a bunch of things in the last three episodes that I didn’t expect.) The other was Barry Eisler’s tweet about Obama’s statement about the NSA (NSFW) from the weekend (Eisler is one of my favorite Mental Floss writers.)
I didn’t see Eisler’s tweet until Sunday morning because of my digital sabbath and it made me think of Lavabit shutting down. And then I had a moment of fear that I was reading it and considering retweeting it. The thought that crossed my mind was “if I retweet this, will the NSA record it somewhere.” Then I decided this was a fear-based reaction that was absurd, but not irrational.
Then I read Homes for Hackers gets a visit from the FBI. My friend Ben, who inspired me to buy a house in the Google Fiberhood in Kansas City, talks about the FBI poking around in his house because he has gigabit Internet. Now, Ben’s a trusting dude so he let the FBI in and was polite, but he speculates that he’s now got a surveillance device in his bathroom.
We are just beginning to understand – and struggle with – the crossover of humans and technology. When you ponder the NSA, it’s starting to feel like a giant computer run by humans, where the computer dominates and the humans are just the mechanics. Sure – the humans want to feel like the ones who are actually running things, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see this evolving along the same lines as Battlestar Galactica.
I accepted a long time ago that I had no actual privacy – that all of my data was being captured somewhere. I gave a talk at my 20th business school reunion in 2008 where I stated directly that “we no longer had any privacy.” But it’s getting worse – fast. Even if we work hard to have privacy, as in using Lavabit to send email, the government can still break through this privacy, or force the service to shut down.
I’m fascinated by all of this. Not scared – fascinated. It’s easy to be cynical, or scared, or angry. But our civilization is going to evolve in very strange and radical ways over the next twenty years. Hang on – it’s going to be a crazy ride.