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.”
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.”