Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World's Most Wanted Man, by Luke Harding

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

This page turning piece of journalism from the Guardian's Luke Harding examines what the balance should be between government spying and the citizen's right to privacy. 

The whole Snowden affair is so big and complex that it's often hard to figure out what the actual ramifications of his actions are for the everyday citizen. Are we all at risk of being spied on by government and ending up in some type of Kafkaesque nightmare? This new book by Guardian journalist Luke Harding does a good job trying to answer some of those questions.

The Snowden Files is a joint publication between the Guardian and Faber and Faber, and so is delivered in a very pacey journalistic style. Large sections of the book give breathtaking detail on how the story was actually leaked, notably to Guardian journalist Glen Greenwald. There's plenty of cloak-and-dagger suspense and weird meeting places as the canny Snowden covers his tracks, trying to ensure he's not being followed.

The most compelling character in The Snowden Files is undoubtedly Snowden himself, perhaps because we so desperately want to know more about him but are given just the sketchiest of biographies. We know he was in his late twenties when he blew the whistle on his employer, the US government's National Security Agency (NSA). In his youth he appears to have been a bit of a tech savvy drifter with no formal qualifications. Once he managed to get himself an entry level position in the IT world, he went from strength to strength and finding work was never a problem. Politically, he was to the libertarian right of the spectrum. Luke Harding quotes at length some fascinating web chats of Snowden's, showing him to be highly critical of journalists who publish state security secrets. Nor was he (in his pre-whistleblower days, at least), a fan of Julian Assange. What happened?

The more he saw from the inside of the NSA, the more alarmed he became at what he considered to be the illegality of its operations. In essence, he thought the agency's activities were unconstitutional. His work at the NSA involved spying on individual citizens. In a larger sense, the ethical question was whether it was right for the NSA to be hoovering up billions of digital information pieces on citizens, not just of the US, but people the world over. (It should also be noted here that the NSA was working hand in glove with its British counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ.) This was what was happening, with the help of big tech companies such as Google, Yahoo, Facebook et all. The world of big data meant that extraordinary amounts of information could be swept up from data bases. The powerful record keeping of the internet means we are all of us living under a microscope, but don't really know it.

For Snowden, it was all too much, and he planned on disclosing what he knew, but without putting anyone's security at risk (unlike Julian Assange, who had published wholesale the Afghanistan war logs without editing sensitive names out of them). This is the interesting difference between Snowden and Assange: Snowden seems more thoughtful, smart and responsible. One co-worker described him as someone who cared and left small gifts for his colleagues.

The Snowden Files only really offers the bare bones of Snowden's personality. There are so many questions about him that remain unanswered. For example, how could he leave his girlfriend for possible exile or prison? It seems he didn't tell her anything but just left. What mental processes could bring him to accept the price of a possible prison sentence in order to tell the world all that he knew? I felt admiration for Snowden, but wanted to know so much more about his personality. It's early days on the whole Snowden affair, and no doubt we'll have to wait for more information.

This is an alarming book. When you type data into Google, send an email or post something on Facebook, all this information is being kept, archived and handed out to security agencies. In the age of big data, an extraordinary amount of information is collected. The power of today's data processing tools means that it doesn't take long to sift through the haystack of data to find the pin that is you.

The main question that the book raises is: what is the right balance between government spying and the citizen's right to privacy. The Snowden Files paints a picture of an Orwellian world enabled by powerful data collecting machines where we are all being watched, even followed, due to the ability to track everyone's mobile phone. Security agencies even know who we fraternise with, again due to everyone carrying a mobile phone.

This is an informative and compelling book about how the ubiquitous capture of digital data is transforming democracy quicker than we can keep up with. 

The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World's Most Wanted Man, by Luke Harding. Published by Guardian Books. ISBN: 9781783350353  RRP: $29.99