If you’re not already a bit paranoid about the government’s ability to monitor your phone and internet communications, and pretty much track your every movement and purchase, Citizenfour might compel you to go log off and go off the grid.
The Academy Award winning documentary tells the story of Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor who exposed to the world the U.S. and U.K. governments’ programs of mass covert surveillance. The film was screened Monday night by the LSESU Amnesty International Society as part of its Anti-Mass Surveillance Campaign.
Citizenfour is the name Snowden used in his anonymous correspondence with filmmaker Laura Poitras before he was revealed as the most influential and consequential whistleblower in the world in June 2013.
In case the gravity of what Snowden revealed through a series of stories written by Glenn Greenwald — that the U.S. government is actively collecting billions of personal emails, Facebook chats, Google searches, Skype calls and archiving that metadata in a way that is archived and searchable should your name ever come to the attention of the authorities in the future — had ebbed, this documentary is a jolting reminder.
The film is primarily set over eight days in a Hong Kong hotel room where Snowden met Poitras and Greenwald, who eventually wrote a series of explosive stories about the PRISM and TEMPORA programs for the Guardian and Washington Post. The stories also eventually exposed the U.S. government’s spying on European allies such as Germany chancellor Angela Merkel.
It’s fascinating to watch Snowden watch himself on the major news channels as his identity was exposed and as he’s portrayed simultaneously as a heroic champion of fundamental rights and public enemy No. 1. The viewer feels a visceral paranoia while watching Snowden holed up in the hotel room with the filmmaker and the Guardian reporter. You see him looking out the window, unplugging the voice over IP phone, which has the ability to be tapped, and fearing that an unexpected fire alarm might be a ploy to smoke them out.
You’re able to really get a grasp of what motivated Snowden to risk his freedom and privacy, to give up his comfortable life with his girlfriend in Hawaii, for the sake of making this highly classified information public. He explained his reluctance to remain a nameless whistleblower lest suspicion be cast onto other NSA contractors employed by Booz Allen Hamilton. At the same time, he knew full well that the mass media has an obsession with big personalities and that there was a risk that the narrative of a rouge NSA whistleblower-turned-international-fugitive would overshadow the information he exposed. That prediction was accurate and indeed even the documentary itself focuses on Snowden the man and Greenwald the reporter as the story unfolds.
Perhaps the most difficult part of the film is watching Snowden find out over email that his live-in girlfriend is being questioned by the police who are waiting to search his home. It’s a deeply personal glimpse at a man who tries to keep his emotions in check.
Snowden was eventually charged with three felonies under the Espionage Act, a law passed in 1917 after the U.S. joined WWI and which historically dealt with foreign spies. With the help of human rights lawyers, he was able to seek asylum in a UN embassy in Hong Kong. He eventually fled to Moscow, where he was trapped in the arrivals section of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport after the U.S. government cancelled his passport. Russia ignored the U.S.’s request for extradition and Snowden is currently living in Russia under a three-year residency permit. It’s a sad irony that the whistleblower has had to seek refuge in a country where Cold War-style spying and human rights abuses against dissidents is still common practice.
But most importantly, what Snowden was trying to do with his dramatic document dump was to shake people out of complacency, to bring awareness to those who might think “if you’ve haven’t done anything wrong you have nothing to hide.”
Because of the government’s ability to retroactively search this massive cache of personal metadata, you can never know what might be used against you. Just think of your movements in a typical day in London: If you use your Oyster card to travel and your debit card to make purchases, everywhere you go and everything you buy is tracked. And in Britain, a country that has one CCTV camera for every 11 people, everywhere you walk and everyone you meet is recorded and stored.
The film lays out bare the fact that without privacy, our other fundamental rights fall like a house of cards: The right to free assembly, the right to free speech, and the right to hold political and religious beliefs.
In the post-9/11 and 7/7 world, the U.S. and U.K. governments have pushed the narrative that citizens will have to sacrifice their civil liberties for the sake of national security. Citizenfour serves as a wake up call that people in a liberal democracy should not have to make a critical choice between the two.
Katie DeRosa, Staff Writer
Featured Image Source: Paton