Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/5/2014 (1120 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In this disturbing book, constitutional lawyer-turned-freelance journalist Glenn Greenwald tells the story of Edward Snowden's massive leak of secret files that describe how the National Security Agency works. (While Greenwald reviewed hundreds of thousands of leaked files himself, the NSA puts the total leak closer to 1.7 million files.)
Erudite and eloquent, although sometimes overly harsh to colleagues who fail to meet his expectations, Greenwald makes a compelling case that powerful surveillance agencies, neither transparent nor accountable, make a mockery of democracy.
In 2009, Canada's auditor general wrote that Canadian government agencies must strike a balance between protecting the privacy of citizens and ensuring national security. Greenwald believes that the United States has shifted the balance decisively away from protecting the privacy of its citizens.
Greenwald splits his book into three sections: a suspensful account of how he first met Snowden; an analysis of more than 60 of the stolen files; and, finally, a discourse on the social and individual importance of privacy, including the unique role of the Internet.
For about 10 years, Snowden, as an employee of various private contractors, had worked for both the CIA and the NSA, rising to become a top cyber-security expert.
Becoming concerned about the ethics and legality of the operations he witnessed, he brought them to the attention of his supervisors, only to be rebuffed.
Fully aware that he was destroying his well-paid career, he decided to make his concerns public. He chose to leak documents from the NSA rather than the CIA because describing systems and not people would do less harm.
On meeting Snowden for the first time in Hong Kong, Greenwald became convinced that Snowden was sincere about wanting to spark a worldwide debate about privacy, Internet freedom and the dangers of state surveillance. He was impressed by Snowden's courage in risking his future for his moral principles.
Backing up his argument with actual files, Greenwald illustrates the informal motto of the NSA: "Collect it all." This is the crux of the matter. It's not remarkable that governments spy on rival governments; what is remarkable is the NSA's surveillance of the population in general.
For example, the NSA's widest-reaching program, X-KEYSCORE, is able to capture almost everything a person does on the Internet, including emails, search engine use and interactions on social media like Facebook and Twitter.
In December 2012 alone, X-KEYSCORE collected 41 billion records.
The NSA gets away with this and other jaw-dropping abuses because its critics are silenced by rote accusations of being soft on terrorism, by oversight that is merely cosmetic and by the raw power of money.
The NSA is not supposed to spy within the United States without the approval of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. However, this is a secret court that grants almost every request that the NSA submits.
One of the leaked documents describes "Money, national interest and ego" as the driving forces of the NSA.
Since 9/11, expenditures on American domestic security have increased by more than $1 trillion. Much of that work is contracted out to private defence corporations who scoop up the taxpayers' dollars.
Those corporations employ hordes of former government officials. Constant fear-mongering keeps the tax dollars flowing and the employment door revolving.
By now, you might be saying, "So what? The subtitle says the book is about the U.S. surveillance state. Why should Canadians care?"
Good question. Greenwald points out that Canada is a very active partner with the NSA, and an energetic surveillance force in its own right. Our Big Brother is the Communications Services Establishment Canada, with a staff of more than 2,100.
Try asking your MP what it's up to.
John K. Collins sends all his mail by carrier pigeon.