The first anniversary of Edward Snowden’s asylum in Russia feels like a good day to review Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the Surveillance State , the bestselling account of breaking the NSA spying scandal.
Greenwald was Snowden’s primary partner (or co-conspirator, if you’re so inclined) in informing the world of the extent to which “the world’s greatest democracy,” as the U.S. so loves to describe itself, is gathering literally billions of pieces of information a day on all of its citizens, and on the leaders and citizens of most of the world’s other nations.
I won’t spend a lot of time on the debate over the legality, or the morality, of Snowden and Greenwald’s actions, other than to say that I enthusiastically endorse what they did.
Rather, this is a review of the book; and, as such, I am a lot more critical of the story as written than I am of the events it describes.
Ignoring for a moment Greenwald’s evident commitment to the traditional liberal values of privacy and liberty (yes, those are liberal values), and ignoring Snowden’s heroic idealism — something he acquired primarily from video games, according to Greenwald — I have to say that No Place to Hide is not a very good book.
I grew quickly tired of the good guy-bad guy narrative, in which a freedom-loving, ordinary security expert and a handful of journalist merry men and women strive to save the world from governments, spy agencies, and compromised publications.
Yes, several parts of the book are very good, but only in isolation. Greenwald’s call for the press to reacquire its status as one of the checks on government is heartfelt and, in places, close to stirring.
And the book’s well-detailed litany of the depth and breadth of intrusive surveillance can’t help but stir an outraged righteousness in the reader. The sheer number and variety of the ways that our keepers monitor our lives is thoroughly distressing.
But these sections, as long as they are, are overwhelmed by the story of the virtuous heroes, Sir Edward Snowden the Bold and Sir Glenn the Undaunted.
Too much of the book reads like the script for a left-of-centre morality play. It does’t help that I, too, am left of centre or that I applaud their actions unreservedly.
The story of their quest to bring evil into the light is so simplistic, so un-nuanced, that I felt as if I were stuck in the “Teen Adventures” section of my local bookseller’s.
I don’t want heroes and villains, at least not in a book about so serious and complex a set of issues as these.
My advice? Skim the parts when Sir Edward and Sir Glenn strive to thwart the dark operatives who are trying to stop them from saving the world.
Find the more solemn substance, and eschew the overblown stirring stuff.