The Forgotten Lesson of 'No Place to Hide'

Photo by Daniel von Appen on Unsplash

In the 2014 book No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald, the esteemed free-lance journalist recounts his interviews in Hong Kong with the National Security Agency (NSA) whistle-blower Edward Snowden. Based on the data Snowden shared with Greenwald and his colleagues, they exposed the architecture of the post-9/11 US surveillance state. More importantly, they brought attention to the issue of mass surveillance and how the steadfast demolition of individual privacy has quietly become a hallmark of statehood in the digital age. Henry Porter in the Guardian wrote in 2014 that the book was about “…how we let the spies probe our lives with such inadequate controls, and how on earth we fell for the propaganda that this massive apparatus was there to protect, not control, us.”

Greenwald’s first couple of chapters focus on the Stormbrew program in which the U. S. Government has permitted the intelligence agencies to create “corporate partnerships” with large telecom and internet service companies. Although none of the companies are named in Snowden documents, the partnering PRISM program explicitly lists companies such as Apple, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and many more, where they have direct access to servers. This not only allows the U. S. and UK Governments to track the data of domestic citizens, but also due to their global customer base they have access to the metadata of a large part of the world’s population. Building on his discussion on NSA programs, Greenwald arrives at the crux of his argument, that “privacy is a core condition of being a free person”. His book is a challenge to every citizen of a democratic state to rid themselves of the norm that “I have nothing to hide”, because it is inherently shunning concerns for individual liberty as a form of deviance.

Five years after the release of Greenwald’s book, it has become clear that the message has fallen on deaf ears. In his 2007 presidential campaign, former President Barack Obama stated that the Bush administration “puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide”. Yet Obama failed to address the core issue at hand in the book and in Snowden’s fundamental message. His administration not only aggressively targeted Snowden personally, but it also more importantly expanded many of the programs of the Bush era. When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, Greenwald wrote in the Washington Post that “by putting a prettier liberal face on these policies, and transforming them from a symbol of GOP radicalism into one of bipartisan security consensus, the president entrenched them as permanent fixtures of the American presidency”.

Greenwald’s work centres on the mass surveillance of the domestic population of American and British citizens, but the most important story within mass surveillance today takes place in China, not the United States. If there was to be any doubt of the power of mass surveillance in the hands of unchecked authority, look no further than China under rule of Xi Jinping. In the past five years, the world’s digital footprint has increased dramatically in both intensity and scope. In the most populous country in the world, Xi Jinping and the Communist Party are using that footprint to govern the lives of their population with a contracting iron fist. In China, dissent and individuality are the enemy of progress and the extent of the Communist Party’s effort to quench it is seemingly boundless. An example of such Orwellian rule can be observed in the city of Kashgar in Xinjiang province where the ethnic minority population of Uighurs are being controlled through facial recognition, cameras, GPS tracking, audio, metadata, and other mechanisms of suppression.

China is changing, and so is the international impact of their domestic surveillance. During the Beijing Olympics in 2008, their awesome surveillance technology was on display for the world to see and it did not go unnoticed. In April, The New York Times showed how the Chinese are selling this equipment as “the future of governance” and have already installed system in Ecuador called ECU-911. This system was largely made by two Chinese companies: the state-controlled C.E.I.E.C. and Huawei.

However, the Ecuadorian system is not the first or the last version of the “exported surveillance state”. According to Freedom House via the New York Times, “18 countries — including Zimbabwe, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Kenya, the United Arab Emirates and Germany — are using Chinese-made intelligent monitoring systems, and 36 have received training in topics like ‘public opinion guidance’.” What this “new normal” of statehood entails is yet to be known, but Greenwald’s message of mass surveillance as a universal temptation for any unscrupulous power has proven itself alarmingly accurate.

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