[This essay is a shortened and adapted version of Chapter 1 of Glenn Greenwald’s new book, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the US Security State, and appears at TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of Metropolitan Books.]
On December 1, 2012, I received my first communication from Edward Snowden, although I had no idea at the time that it was from him.
The contact came in the form of an e-mail from someone calling himself Cincinnatus, a reference to Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, the Roman farmer who, in the fifth century BC, was appointed dictator of Rome to defend the city against attack. He is most remembered for what he did after vanquishing Rome’s enemies: he immediately and voluntarily gave up political power and returned to farming life. Hailed as a “model of civic virtue,” Cincinnatus has become a symbol of the use of political power in the public interest and the worth of limiting or even relinquishing individual power for the greater good.
The e-mail began: “The security of people’s communications is very important to me,” and its stated purpose was to urge me to begin using PGP encryption so that “Cincinnatus” could communicate things in which, he said, he was certain I would be interested. Invented in 1991, PGP stands for “pretty good privacy.” It has been developed into a sophisticated tool to shield e-mail and other forms of online communications from surveillance and hacking.
In this e-mail, “Cincinnatus” said he had searched everywhere for my PGP “public key,” a unique code set that allows people to receive encrypted e-mail, but could not find it. From this, he concluded that I was not using the program and told me, “That puts anyone who communicates with you at risk. I’m not arguing that every communication you are involved in be encrypted, but you should at least provide communicants with that option.”
“Cincinnatus” then referenced the sex scandal of General David Petraeus, whose career-ending extramarital affair with journalist Paula Broadwell was discovered when investigators found Google e-mails between the two. Had Petraeus encrypted his messages before handing them over to Gmail or storing them in his drafts folder, he wrote, investigators would not have been able to read them. “Encryption matters, and it is not just for spies and philanderers.”
“There are people out there you would like to hear from,” he added, “but they will never be able to contact you without knowing their messages cannot be read in transit.” Then he offered to help me install the program. He signed off: “Thank you. C.”
Using encryption software was something I had long intended to do. I had been writing for years about WikiLeaks, whistleblowers, the hacktivist collective known as Anonymous and had also communicated with people inside the US national security establishment. Most of them are concerned about the security of their communications and preventing unwanted monitoring. But the program is complicated, especially for someone who had very little skill in programming and computers, like me. So it was one of those things I had never gotten around to doing.