Sunday, May 24, 2020

Dark Mirror

Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State by Barton Gellman
Penguin Random House; 5/19/20
eBook review copy; 448 pages

Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State by Barton Gellman is a very highly recommended account of Edward Snowden's 2013  leak of National Security Agency (NSA) files and the inside story of Gellman's investigation and its repercussions.

"Edward Snowden touched off a global debate in 2013 when he gave Barton Gellman, Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald each a vast and explosive archive of highly classified files revealing the extent of the American government’s access to our every communication. They shared the Pulitzer Prize that year for public service. For Gellman, who never stopped reporting, that was only the beginning.  He jumped off from what Snowden gave him to track the reach and methodology of the U.S. surveillance state and bring it to light with astonishing new clarity.  Along the way, he interrogated Snowden’s own history and found important ways in which myth and reality do not line up.  Gellman treats Snowden with respect, but this is no hagiographic account, and Dark Mirror sets the record straight in ways that are both fascinating and important..."

The professionally written and organized narrative follows two different threads. The first is Snowden's backstory up to his contacting reporters to send them the stolen files and tell his story. The second part is Gellman's story about his investigation, the illegal intrusion and surveillance of citizen's private lives, and the overreach of meddling in his personal life. Dark Mirror is not a book about Snowden, although he is a part of it. Gellman believes that Snowden did more good than harm, but he will concede that Snowden's disclosures exacted a price in lost intelligence. The power of electronic surveillance requires secrecy in order to catch targets unaware. Dark Mirror is a look at how, after September 11, 2001, the U.S. government came to believe its electronic surveillance of enemies necessitated the inclusion of Americans as well. The NSA extended its data collection into digital areas used by almost everyone, including Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook accounts, among others.  FYI: "A smartphone is an excellent tracking device. It works well as a remote-controlled microphone, too, for someone who knows how to switch it on."

What people need to be concerned about is that the NSA arranged our phone records in a "one-hop contact chain of each to all. All kinds of secrets - social, medical, political, professional - were precomputed, 24/7." Gellman was told that there was no cause for concern because "the links are unassembled until you launch a query." But he said "I saw a database that was preconfigured to map anyone’s life at the touch of a button." ALL your digital/online activity tied to a contact chain and all it takes is someone to decide they are going to violate of your right to privacy. Government officials countered to Gellman with the statement that the potential power was not being used or abused and American citizens were not being spied on. It was said that that the government/NSA really doesn’t care about us in that way because we are not that interesting from a national security point of view. The good news is that the Freedom Act of 2015 prohibits the bulk collection of phone records and that internet traffic is more encrypted, making surveillance more difficult. (More difficult does not equate impossible.) Any protections set in place can be stripped away in an instant.

I found this a totally engrossing account of Snowden's actions and everything that followed his release of the files. Dark Mirror sparked several long discussions and debates as I was reading it. The debate is still ongoing, but the discussions and the questions need continuous scrutiny. This is an excellent, even-handed examination of Snowden's actions and Gellman's investigation that is well-worth reading and considering the implications revealed within the narrative.
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Penguin Random House.

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