I saw Laura Poitras’ documentary CITIZENFOUR last week. The heating in the cinema wasn’t working, so it was freezing. We kept our winter coats on. It was if a divine force—or perhaps a piece of government malware—was saying, “if you know what’s good for you, you’ll get out of here.”
The film tells the story of Edward Snowden leaking thousands of classified documents in the hope of exposing the NSA’s mass surveillance programmes to public scrutiny. But it’s not a traditional documentary because Poitras is at the centre of the story. After failing to convince Glenn Greenwald to set up encrypted email, Snowden contacted Poitras and asked her to receive the leaked documents. She’d already learned to use encryption after the US government put her under surveillance. From the film:
[Poitras reads encrypted email from Snowden]: You asked why I picked you. I didn’t. You did. The surveillance you’ve experienced means you’ve been selected, a term which will mean more to you as you learn about how the modern SIGINT system works.
For now, know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cell phone tower you pass, friend you keep, article you write, site you visit, subject line you type, and packet you route, is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited but whose safeguards are not. Your victimization by the NSA system means that you are well aware of the threat that unrestricted, secret abilities pose for democracies. This is a story that few but you can tell.
Through her choice to continue her work despite being harassed by the US government, Poitras became a central player in the story she was trying to tell.
CITIZENFOUR is a story about courage. Yes, the film presents evidence showing that NSA, GCHQ, and other English-speaking intelligence agencies have turned the internet into a weapon for the oppression of people by their governments. But I already knew that. I’ve read the coverage. I’ve studied many of the leaked documents. The fear I felt as I watched was triggered by my realisation that Snowden, Poitras, Greenwald and several others were doing something about it.
As I listened to Poitras reading out encrypted emails from Snowden, my partner noticed that I seemed to be shivering, and asked if I was OK. It wasn’t the cold. I realised two things while listening to his emails. First, although I’m not a security expert, I know enough about encryption and the internet to understand the gravity of his instructions to, for example, “assume your adversary is capable of one trillion guesses per second.” If I’d been brought up in Maryland, or taken a career in the UK’s intelligence agencies—as many of my classmates did—I might have found myself facing the same choice. Second, this man, just a year younger than me, chose to risk his life to expose the NSA’s abuse of power. It was as if the camera had turned to me. What have I done about this? What could I do?
The film shows Snowden, Poitras, Greenwald and others standing up to the US security state and its allies. We hear of the repeated harassment Poitras experienced at the US border, leading her to move to Berlin to continue her work. We see the US cancel Snowden’s passport as he attempts to claim asylum, and the UK harass Greenwald’s partner—supposedly using “terrorism” powers—as he transits through Heathrow airport.
And despite all of this, they publish the documents. Snowden identifies himself as the leaker and ends up in Moscow safe from the hands of the CIA. Major newspapers across the world cover the story, the EU and German governments open official enquiries. And somehow Poitras creates this documentary.
This isn’t the narrative we’re used to. The version we know starts the same way—a powerful and violent authority seeks to control everyone else—but resistance is futile, right? Three people against the NSA, the CIA, the US government? Haha, we’d say, you people are out of your minds and will end up dead or behind bars.
These people are on camera literally saying, “fuck you,” to the US government. These people are living.
The NSA story hits close to home. I’ve been programming computers since I was a child. Almost everything I’ve achieved as an adult would’ve been impossible without the internet. And because I’ve benefited from my ability to code websites and set up servers, I thought that the internet was a “good” thing, a disruptive force that would undermine authority and empower people. Snowden’s documents prove that on the contrary, the authorities have converted the internet into the most effective tool to control people ever made.
The film shows two explanations of why modern mass surveillance threatens all of us.
The first is a conference speech by William Binney, the veteran NSA mathematician who invented techniques for foreign surveillance during the cold war. He became a whistleblower when he objected to George Bush’s secret Stellar Wind programme, which turned the same techniques onto the American people. The system Binney designed collects data across a number of “domains”, including your calls, texts, and phone’s location, your email, financial transactions, the websites you visit and search terms you use. It maps them onto a “social graph” across time, tracking every aspect of your life. This allows the NSA to assemble a timeline of your events and relationships.
The second explanation is from Jacob Appelbaum, a contributor to the Tor privacy service. Speaking to a group of activists, he mentions the New York subway’s service that links your credit card to your MetroCard. Once you’ve linked these two cards, the authorities can track both your location—the subway stops you visited—and all of your purchases throughout the day. This gives them reliable-seeming evidence that they can use to incriminate you. If the government gets its way, everyone will be surveilled all the time, and the authorities can “prove” anyone’s guilt whenever they want to.
This is totalitarianism, Silicon Valley style.
The parallels aren’t a coincidence. Facebook collects as much personal data about you as it can, stores it in a “social graph” and uses algorithms that learn how to manipulate your behaviour. Google assures you it doesn’t read your email—”computers” read your email and show you relevant ads—just as Obama assured you that, “nobody’s listening to your phone calls.” (By which he meant, we’re just recording them to disk in case we want to incriminate you later.) Further, Snowden presented proof that these services actually supply the NSA programmes with our personal data, along with the phone companies, internet service providers, and banks.
Google and Facebook want us to click on ads. NSA wants us to censor ourselves, to know our place, to conform.
Am I OK with being part of that? Not really. Could I do something about it? Perhaps. Am I afraid of the repercussions? Yes.
I wasn’t shivering in the cinema because of the cold, or because of shock at the behaviour of NSA/GCHQ, or because I was angry. I was shivering because I saw the courage of Poitras, Snowden, Greenwald and their colleagues, and I’m terrified of what might happen to me if I made choices like that.