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Whatever one thinks about Edward Snowden, whether he is a traitor who deserves a very long term of imprisonment, or whether he is a hero who has sacrificed his future to expose an Orwellian world of unauthorized surveillance and law breaking, one cannot deny the the importance of the devastating revelations in this well-written, riveting book.

It starts by describing Snowden's development as a young man. Surprisingly, he has little formal education, not even a high school diploma, the very minimum passport in America for a reasonable job, but has obvious intelligence and an early keen interest in, and ability with, computers. He first surfaced as a prolific contributor to online forums. At this stage he was politically a conservative, with a strong belief in the sanctity of the American constitution, something he had been taught by his father. He was a patriot who wanted to serve his country in the military, but his short stint in the US army was a disaster, when he broke both his legs and was discharged.

Somehow, despite his lack of qualifications, he manage to get a job as an IT specialist in a small outfit that was a covert facility for NSA (National Security Agency) and from there he moved on to work for the State Department in Europe and began to have access to classified information. His internet posts at this time show that he was strongly opposed to leaking any secret information, regarding it as a despicable act, but by the time he had finished a period in Geneva working with CIA officers he began to experience a `crisis of confidence', and became increasingly disillusioned at his government's activities. He resigned from the CIA and became a contractor in a NSA facility at a military base in Japan. Here he realized just how all consuming were NSA's surveillance activities and how the oversight of its work that was enshrined in law was being ignored and/or subverted to make it ineffectual. By the time he left Japan in 2012 to work in another NSA facility in Hawaii, Snowden was a whistleblower in waiting.

From then on he used his high security clearance to amass a vast collection of tens of thousand of highly secret files, which he was able to remove from the facility due to appallingly lax security. He initially tried to release these to Glenn Greenwald, a well-known American journalist, political commentator, and advocate of citizen's rights, who was living in Brazil. But because of the latter's lack of knowledge about internet security, Snowden eventually communicated via a friend of Greenwald, a filmmaker called Laura Poitras, and another strong critic of the American security services. Gradually Snowden convinced her, and through her Greenwald, that he was not a crank, but had hard evidence to support his claims. When the three eventually met, in a hotel room in Hong Kong, Greenwald and Poitras were stunned to find a serious 23-year-old and not a 60-year-old disillusioned security veteran they were expecting.

What followed then is told in great detail, but admirable clarity, in this book; how the Guardian newspaper was given the material, and began to publish, latterly in collaboration with other media outlets, notably the New York Times, documents that were deeply embarrassing to the NSA. They revealed the existence of a startling number of major surveillance programmes, previously unknown to the public, or even Congress. The examples were numerous: NSA had been systematically collecting vast amounts of cyber data about American citizens (something that was almost certainly illegal, and which the Director of NSA had denied to a Congressional committee); it had forced the major internet service providers, such as Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook etc., to hand over data about their customers by using orders from a secret court few even knew existed; it had even hacked into their data storage facilities without their knowledge; it had also hacked into the computer systems of major commercial organizations worldwide and the personal emails and phones of numerous national leader, including those of allies such as Germany. The result storm of indignation was deafening, but not in the UK where the cosy archaic D-notice system successful warned off nearly all the large media outlets, including the BBC. This was hardly surprising, since the UK had actively collaborated with the US via it own organization, GCHQ.

There were occasional bizarre humorous events, including when the Guardian was forced, under threat of closure, to destroy its computers that held the files, under the watchful eyes of two spooks from GCHQ, even though the latter knew full well that copies of the files existed elsewhere, including Brazil and in the offices of the Guardian's US office, well out of their jurisdiction, in a country where the press enjoyed far greater legal protection than in the UK.

Snowden comes across as a serious young man whose actions were prompted by a sense of obligation to his beliefs about citizen's rights in America and not for the publicity of instant fame. He knew very well that he would suffer for his actions and has paid a very high price for them. He is presently in Russia on a temporary asylum visa that could be revoked at any time, and is a wanted man in the US, where he faces criminal charges that could carry a 30 year jail sentence if found guilty. His `punishment' may remain with him for the rest of his life, but at least he will have the comfort that his actions may just possibly have started a debate that will profoundly strengthen citizen's rights against the actions of governments and their secret services. Even the latter should be grateful that having incidentally exposed the abysmal state of security around `state secrets', Snowden did not simply upload everything onto the internet, as Julian Assange did with the Wikileaks files. Both he and the media outlets that published the files did so in a thoroughly responsible way.
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on 16 March 2014
I bought two books on the Snowden affair to try and get different angles on the story. This one is very much pro-Snowden and anti-NSA/GCHQ while the other (by Edward Lucas) is really quite the opposite.

This was a well written account which raises many questions about the tapping activities of the UK and US governments and gives an insight into why Snowden leaked information and how the leak developed. I think it's probably a fair portrait of Snowden and I agree that the spectacle of GCHQ 'technicians' overseeing the destruction of Guardian laptops was disturbingly Orwellian (not to mention extremely stupid, since the horse had clearly bolted in multiple directions by then). What it doesn't do is address whether Snowden had any other agendas. Given the world of shadows and double dealing from which he came this is still a fair question.
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on 27 March 2014
Books about the internet and hackers are mostly really boring and badly written so its a pleasure to find one with a gripping narrative but also plenty of detail, at least for the non-geek.
If you want to know about how easily the government, police and a raft of other agencies can access all your online data then this is a great account.
Snowden has been criminalised by the US and no doubt he did break the law - but so were the US and UK governments by ripping off all our data.
By exposing what the US govt was doing and making them regulate it, he's done that country - and the UK - a huge favour, and reminded us what makes us different from, and better than, states like Russia and China.
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on 14 October 2015
This is a much better book than No Place to Hide, if you want to understand the man and not just the plan to leak the documents. It is a superb book that clearly shows both what the NSA and GCHQ are doing (as does the Greenwald book) but for me, understanding the background of the guy who did it, is so much more rewarding. It is the why not just the how.
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on 5 February 2014
I review this book as a Brit. Hence my perspective will be different to those from other nations whom we share this world with. But we are all human beings, trying to find our way through life, making this world we share a better place for those that come after us. And this book goes to the core of our life. It certainly spoke to my heart.

Now if I were David Cameron [British Prime Minister] I would be furious. Furious that our secrets had been displayed to the world. But as I am but a mere British Citizen, or subject as this book reminds me, I can enjoy the book for what it is – a wonderful read and insight into aspects of life that we don’t normally get to see.

While this book is based on the revelations in the Guardian newspaper, it brought the story together in a vivid, heart touching, and sometimes amusing way. For example I can clearly imagine Snowden sitting at his desk with the US Constitution in his hand wondering why there appears to be such a big “say-do” gap between what is claimed and what is reality. I have had that battle myself, so I do sympathise with Snowden on that as he tried to understand why.

For me I think that he should have remained within the system. He could have resigned and moved into politics where in time he could shape things for the better. Or he could, bearing his youthful age, simply have reflected that those above him must have wider considerations that sometimes put them in impossible situations.

What he should not have done, in my opinion, was steal all that information and share it with the world.

However given he has, I am grateful. For the insights he, the Guardian and the author of this book, have given me on how the political system of my own country works. I used to vote for Malcolm Rifkind a long time ago, and in a way it was comforting, if a little amusing, reading about how he is dealing with the fallout of the revelations in the book.

I am sure that citizens of America, and other European nations, will also be looking at how their elected leaders have responded to Snowden. And as such one, often missed, aspect of what Snowden has done is that he might just have crystallised a turning point in the evolution of the human race. For while the establishments dig deeper and shore up, the public are questioning, and the reverberations are likely to affect politics for decades to come. So history may well show Snowden as being a man who helped bring peace to this planet, as politicians are forced, probably slowly, of putting the past behind them and working more closely and in trust. Idealistic maybe. But the history of the human race is one of coming together long term, and perhaps Snowden has given it its most recent jolt.

Not that politicians are likely to appreciate that just now, and it must be a nightmare for the security services of our world, who to be fair, are responsible for keeping us all safe. And this is the key thing. I don’t know about you but I value being able to walk the streets safely and if the NSA or GCHQ reading all my stuff enables that then I have no problems with it whatsoever. I just feel sorry for the poor person who has to get bored reading the drivel I write. Rightly or wrongly I do feel safer for knowing that bad uns will be found.

That said as is made clear in the book, all of this mass surveillance hasn’t actually produced that many positive results in that respect, so perhaps now is a good point for reflection as to direction. Hopefully that will be in a positive manner as opposed to fear based retrenchment.

It occurs to me that from reading this book I know a lot about stuff that many in the compartmentalised world of security might not have known themselves until recently – like Strap categories above Top Secret etc.

I can only imagine how strained relationships have become as a result of Snowden, but have hopes that we as a world can move positively forwards. I mean leadership is all about inspiring, not fear, we have in the West mostly evolved beyond that. And if we want to lead in this rapidly changing world we do need to inspire the hearts of others.

The coming years are likely to be difficult for Snowden, but he will get through them, and may well one day be seen as a guiding light. In the meantime our security services really need to ensure that such leaks don’t happen again, for as the epilogue of this book says, if someone in the future didn’t give the files to the press they really could fall into the wrong hands, and that really could be disastrous. So credit to Snowden and to the Guardian and its allies for showing a level of responsibility. Given the sheer speed of human evolution perhaps our security services should be looking to move past mere tapping and collection, and connect more with the heartbeat of the people? Our politicians of various nations are finding out fast that lies are soon found out in this age, so really do need to up their game. Be honest, abide by the rules, after all rules are there for a reason, and if those at the top break the rules or lie than that does set a poor example that flows down to be emulated throughout society.

Democracy matters, and part of democracy is willing to be questioned and held to account for errors of judgement. We all make mistakes, I know I certainly have in life, and I doubt anyone hasn’t. The world is now much more fully informed and aware of what happens behind closed doors. I can only hope that all parties and nations find ways walking positively forwards from this, and not retrench backwards. Human instinct would be to retreat inwards. That would in my opinion be the wrong decision. Now is the time to hold your hand out in friendship and learn the lessons of Snowden. Not simply “we must secure things better” but also “perhaps we have gone too far too fast in a frenzy” and perhaps even “we are all on the same side so lets be who we really are people who share this planet.” Idealistic I know.

In summary this book made me think, educated me, and at times made me laugh. While I am saddened and even horrified by parts of it, I think that it is essential reading. Though if I were David Cameron or President Obama I probably would be fuming.

The main lesson of this book is that “with power comes responsibility”.
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on 9 January 2017
A very readable account of the Edward Snowden disclosures which might just wake us up to understanding that our governments prefer spying on us to being truthful with us - and that the UK government is even more protective of its 'rights' to spy on us than any other Western government.
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on 5 February 2014
If you followed all the reports you will already be familiar with the various parts of the story, but this book fleshes out those reports, the characters and the locations admirably and lets you in on what was happening behind the scenes too (which I love). Despite my familiarity with the story, this book kept me gripped. Luke Harding presents the facts clearly, without getting bogged down in technicalities and there's a surprising amount of humour too, often characteristic of people working under intense pressure. I'd recommend it.
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on 25 March 2014
Like Luke Harding's book on his Russian experience, I couldn't put this one down.
Everyone in Britain, and much farther afield, ought to read this - and keep it handy to read again and hand on to the next generation.
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on 24 March 2014
I'll keep it short and sweet, this book summarises the Snowdon story very well and it really does read like a thriller. The best thing about this book is the great detail that Luke Harding goes into which makes it hard to put down! The ways in which the UK government reacted to the leaks and the actions they took are very worrying. Highly recommended!!
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on 17 March 2014
Luke Harding has written a rather balanced and well-informed book about the revelations of Edward Snowden. I happened to read Andrew O'Hagan's article on Julian Assange and it is clear that they are pretty different. Politically and as personalities. It seems that Snowden really is not interested in himself or in becoming the savior of the world, but just to show how the US government is betraying its own constitution. Of course the book is also a hilarious description of all the stupidities committed by especially the British government and how it goes after journalists on very flimsy excuses. But the reader gets also a comprehensive description of the main revelations from Snowden's files and their importance for our lives. Perhaps the main teaching is that too much data collection is just self-defeating and useless. Intelligent data collection is the key: only collect data when you have a reason or are given a reason. But of course this is easier said than done. Still, the NSA operation has all the sign of data collection gone astray (when I did my first data-analyses by computer, I made just one programming mistake which produced about 2000 pages of useless data, so I know!). The effect of Snowden's revelations has been huge. We know now how the US government (and some smaller ones) operates. But I see very little change in people's behavior. This is probably due to the fact that such huge data collection is really deemed as self-defeating. Let us hope it is!
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