Do you remember Edward Snowden? He was the high-security, high-tech young whistleblower who went public in 2013 with documents proving that the United States National Security Agency was (and is) gathering intelligence megadata on American citizens using cellphones and internet providers in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world. His revelations were a bombshell which showed that highly-placed U.S. officials had lied on the record to Congress.
Two independent investigative journalists who interviewed Snowden released a series of stories showing that, contrary to American law, the U.S. government had a massive program to gather megadata which could be used to target individuals, trace all their activities in the past, and track their actions in the future. Ostensibly to protect national security, and facilitated by contracts with major computer and cellphone companies, this state surveillance of individual privacy is all-pervasive.
The reaction in America and elsewhere around the world was predictably dramatic. Shortly after the stories began to emerge, Snowden was identified and traced to Hong Kong. There, he sought refugee status with the United Nations, went underground, and ended up spending forty days in the transit lounges of the Moscow airport. The United States charged him with four counts under the Espionage Act, and pulled his passport. Today, he remains in an apartment in Moscow, officially stateless, and in the ironic sanctuary of a country committed neither to freedom nor privacy.
If you are anything like me, you may have missed the details of the Snowden affair. Even as the scandal continued showing that America spied on competitor companies in Brazil, and even on the cellphone of Chancellor Merkel of Germany, the significance of these revelations has faded. Worldwide media and public attention is fickle, moving on to other things.
Citizenfour is a documentary meant to change that. Directed by Laura Poitras, the film is shot in real time, with Snowden in his Hong Kong hotel room talking with the reporters who brought his revelations to the world. Viewers see the planning, the strategizing, the bravado, the angst, the pressures, and the dangers (real and perceived) as Snowden works with his collaborators to make public what he felt the world needed to know. Contrary to official U.S. portrayals, Snowden emerges as a thoughtful, articulate, highly intelligent and idealistic. We wonder, however, if he is he as realistic as he asserts, or just naïve? How could anyone do what he is doing? His collaborators seem sympathetic, but they have their own agendas. The fallout is chilling for the participants, and for us.
The film is an absolute must see for everyone concerned about individual privacy versus state surveillance. Under U.S. law, court protections requiring a search warrant for further investigations are only necessary to monitor communications between two American citizens. Everyone else, including non-Americans communicating with or through American companies, is fair game. That included the German Chancellor, and includes us.
The film raises so many questions for thought and discussion. Is national security so fragile that comprehensive digital state surveillance is now necessary? To what extent are we prepared to sacrifice our privacy, and personal identity, to unsupervised state overview? Do we agree that modern technological companies should share megadata with the state which can compromise our privacy? Do we really care about privacy anyway? If we do, what can we, and will we, do about it? And how should the state treat whistleblowers? Is there any political will to provide a public interest or a constitutional defence against state prosecutions when the actions of the state contravene the law? The questions are mind-blowing. Focused as it is on the individual experience of one of the world’s most significant whistleblowers, so is the film. Citizenfour is showing this month at the Bloor Cinema in Toronto, and at various venues in Victoria. Catch it when it comes your way.