Geopolitics

In Rio With Glenn Greenwald And David Miranda, More Snowden Stories To Come

Greenwald was on vacation in Brazil when he met his partner Miranda and traded in his NY law career for journalism. Now the couple are both in the spotlight over the Edward Snowden leak.

A happy couple
A happy couple
Mônica Bergamo

RIO DE JANEIRO — It was the summer of 2004. Stressed out after defending a client in court, attorney Glenn Greenwald decided to get out of New York and travel to Rio de Janeiro for vacation. One day after arriving, already on Ipanema Beach near the city’s most well-known gay area, a volleyball rolls by his beach chair and nearly knocks over his drink.

David Miranda, then just 19, comes over to retrieve the ball. At the time, he hadn’t yet finished high school. His mother had died when he was only five, and he’d never met his father. He left the aunt who raised him and his home in the Jacarezinho slums when he was only 15. He shined shoes, delivered leaflets, cleaned, did some office work and managed a lottery shop to make ends meet.

Just one week after that meeting on the beach, the two were living together. Greenwald, a New York University School of Law graduate, now 46, abandoned the law and ventured into blogging. Miranda worked on starting a tour guide company catering to gay Americans.

They now live together in a home in a nice area with 10 adopted dogs and a cat. There is little furniture. This is where Greenwald works as a journalist and columnist, eventually rising to worldwide prominence after reporting whistleblower Edward Snowden"s leaks and exposing the abuses of the surveillance system mounted by the U.S. government. Greenwald maintains his blog and a column in the British newspaper The Guardian, and is writing his fifth book.

The daily routine

Greenwald wakes up at 5 a.m. Sometimes he wears shorts and flip-flops, and continues working until about 11 a.m., typically fixed in front of the computer. Then he leaves to play tennis, coming back at about 2 p.m. and working until around 8 p.m.

“Glenn does terribly with directions,” Miranda says. “I’ve got a GPS in my head.”

Miranda is also in charge of the cooking. Both share a taste for Nietzsche. They enjoy watching the series Breaking Bad together. Greenwald likes rap music, while Miranda is more into techno and trance.

Miranda, a native Brazilian, speaks fluent English. He didn’t study it, so he likes to say he learned by playing video games. He is now finishing a marketing degree at one of the most respected schools in Brazil. He manages his American partner’s schedule, and Greenwald likes to consult him about the articles he writes.

Earlier this month, in what became a major global story, Miranda was detained by British authorities at Heathrow Airport in London. He was interrogated for nine hours and had his cell phone, computer and memory sticks seized. He was returning from a meeting in Berlin with filmmaker Laura Poitras, who is also involved in documenting the Snowden story and the practice of electronic eavesdropping.

In June, she was with Greenwald in Hong Kong, in the final sequence of encounters with Snowden, the former NSA employee who leaked classified files to Greenwald.

Greenwald says that he has reported only a small portion of the material he had access to and that the pressure on him could become even harsher. “The Internet can go either way: to work as a tool to strengthen democracy or to control the masses. I fight against the latter,” he says.

Protecting his assets

He took a “beginner’s course” with Snowden about cyber safety and risk avoidance. One week he studied for five hours a day about email encryption and protecting documents, chats and anonymous browsing. He’s learned to place his cell phone in the freezer, without the battery, to avoid tracking. Spies could turn the device into a GPS or a microphone even when their targets are far away.

It’s for those reasons, among others, that he doubts British or American authorities will be able to access the data in the devices they took from Miranda. Besides, there are other copies.

According to Greenwald, 80% of the web's data is carried by fiber-optic cables that go through the US, which makes it easier to access them. Skype and Microsoft top the vulnerability list, with Twitter and Yahoo! at the other end. All were forced by law to give away their data to the NSA, although some resisted more than others.

Greenwald believes leaks will become more and more frequent. “The spy system has 25,000 direct employees and 50,000 contractors. It’s impossible to protect secrets, especially in the digital age.”

The problem is dissecting them. “Studies show that the spy service collected enough evidence on Sept. 11, before the attack,” he says. “But the sources were diverse and did not communicate. They can discover many things, but not what they want.”

He continues, “We do not want to destroy the capacity of the state, but the public should know and decide what are the acceptable forms of espionage.”

Politically disillusioned

Greenwald supported Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008. But now he regards the Obama administration as “almost the same” as predecessor George W. Bush. “The USA isn't the freest country in the world. When compared to many European countries, American democracy is weaker."

Convicting Bradley Manning, the military officer who leaked classified information to WikiLeaks, and sentencing him to 35 years in prison was “horrible,” Greenwald says. “He’s uncovered many crimes, such as American soldiers killing journalists in Iraq from a helicopter. Nobody was charged, only the person who exposed it. He hasn’t hurt anybody. That's a shame.”

He praises the Brazilian government’s reaction to his partner’s arrest. “Every 20 minutes I receive a call from top officials asking if we have news. They are pressing on the British government.”

The prospect of returning to the U.S. is still an option. American law would allow Miranda to get a resident visa. “I plan to go there and talk to the government about my work, ask whether I'd be able to do it with the same freedom I have in Brazil,” Greenwald says.

Meanwhile, Greenwald is enjoying the country where he came just for vacation nine years ago. “I’ve been to many cities in the world, and none of them is better than Rio, which has beaches, mountains, sophisticated culture and good weather.”

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Society

Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum

-Analysis-

SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.


It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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