Book review: the panopticon we live in and the wistleblower who took a stance

Last week, a EU state-owned television station showed a documentary three times. It was shown during different time-slots. It was shown on different days. They must have aimed at reaching as many viewers as possible.

The documentary focussed on one person who was also interviewed. But it also showed parts of interviews with the person’s father, journalists, lawyers, and even US officials.

The same week, articles appeared on various UK newspaper websites. They were linked to this documentary and a book. The articles reported rulings by a secretive court of a EU member state.

You may have missed the articles. You were unable to watch the documentary. You may not have read the book about the case – yet. Nevertheless: you know the person’s name.

In 2013, he became one of several – yes several – whistleblower who tried to take on the panopticon we live in. One of his reason’s to blow the whistle is printed at the top of page five of the book: “I don’t want to live in a world where everything that I say, everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity or love or friendship is recorded …”

He is Edward Snowden. The book’s title is “The Snowden Files”. It’s written by award-winning correspondent Luke Harding and was first published in 2014. It’s available in many languages.

The book starts with a prologue. Journalist Greenwald is on his way to a hotel in Hong Kong. he is going to meet a dubious source. By now we now, it would become a major scoop, a man hunt, and upset quite a lot of governments and politicians.

After about 10 pages, the first of fourteen chapters starts and it flashbacks to 2001. This is how the chapters of this book work. You will not only read about the events, but also be told about their background and history. The first few chapters introduce you to the main subjects: Edward Snowden, Greenwald, Miranda, Pointras. But they are not the only people caught up in events. There are politicians, writers, ordinary people, as well as newspapers, agencies, whatnot.

Chapter four “Puzzle Palace”, goes into why and how the surveillance and spying became so total. It describes how and why the NSA was created. It describes how and where information is gathered and with which countries, including yours, it is kind of shared.

At the end of this chapter, parts of an interview are cited. It was an interview by journalist Ackerman with Senator Wyden in 2011. The Senator states: “… We’re getting to a gap between what the public thinks the law says and what the American government secretly thinks the law says. …” Of course, despite Wikileaks and the Snowden Files, that gap never closed.

The book reads like an extraordinary spy-novel. It is better than any James Bond or other thriller, for this really took place. It really happened and involved real people. Though at times technical, even these technical or legal parts are easy to understand. The pace and tension are high, while the book is highly readable and informative.

Revelations are sometimes pretty shocking, even if events took place in 2013. In a few cases, watching the Panorama documentary actually brought home more forcefully what the US government and its various agencies permitted themselves.

Reading what happened to a President’s for instance, is one thing. To see it happen again, makes one cringe with shame. It is truly unbelievable how EU governments caved in to US pressure. Forcing a President’s airplane to land and searching it, was illegal and a declaration of war. It is horrifying to know and read, that this was just one of many dubious acts which took place.

What took place at the Guardian’s London office is not only highly upsetting, but also pathetic and hilarious: policemen and secret service staff destroying hard disks and pcs. Then there was the illegal arrest and detention of mr Miranda at Heathrow.

What the book does not highlight but the documentary did, was the fact that US agencies tried Snowden’s father to go to Moscow. It was one of those tactics used to get hold of certain people in let’s say Afghanistan, to ensure they ended up in another part of the world – controlled by the US.

In short: the book also shows how the laws of every country were misused, bent, shoved aside and bulldozered over for as long as it pleased the US government and its agencies. It is chilling to realise that this situation has hardly altered.

The book ends with an epilogue, describing what those who were caught up in “der Shitstorm” are doing now. It was published before Edward Snowden won the alternative Nobel Peace Prize 2014.

As we are all living under 24/7 surveillance and are being spied upon day and night, this book is a must read. You may claim, you have nothing to hide. But it’s not only about what you may or may not have to hide.

With all the information gathered, it is easy for governments to use this information. Imagine you end up in the situation a few decent people found themselves in: their identity stolen by a foreign agency and used by its agents to commit murder.

And before you start clamoring that it’s all done to enhance your security and safeguard your life: why do you think the real leaders of terrorist groups for instance do not use mobile phones and use dispensable lackeys to access the internet?

As for that very secret court: “… The Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), the secretive court that was created to keep Britain’s intelligence agencies in check, said that GCHQ’s access to information intercepted by the NSA breached human rights laws.

The court found that the collection contravened Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to a private and family life. It also breaches Article 6, which protects the right to a fair trial. …”

For articles on this ruling:
Independent: GCHQ spying on British citizens was unlawful, secret court rules in shock decision. 
Guardian: US-UK surveillance regime was unlawful

“The Snowden Files, Luke Harding, pp 350, Vintage Books 2014. The book is available in many languages and as hardback, pocket, Ebook.

Laura Poitras’ documentary, Citizenfour, contends for a 2015 Oscar. The Guardian organises a special event in London, on Monday 2nd of March 2015.



2 thoughts on “Book review: the panopticon we live in and the wistleblower who took a stance

    • Guardian Alex Hern’s article on the Guardian website: “Six ways your tech is spying on you and how to turn it off” might interest you. Especially, when you know NSA and other agencies forced Google, Microsoft, and software companies etc to leave “holes” in (distributed) software wide-open so these agencies had access and could monitor. It’s now clear not only government agencies spy on us: Samsung and other firms don’t baulk at doing the same.

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