Denouncing Surveillance, on Camera

Snowden on camera.jpg

Richard Drew/AP Photo

Edward Snowden in a video conference with John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, New York, June 5, 2014

Midway through Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’s inside-story documentary about Edward Snowden’s disclosure of mass surveillance by the National Security Agency, the camera captures Snowden wrestling with an errant cowlick. In a hotel room in Hong Kong, where he has gone to meet with Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald to coordinate the first of many leaks of top-secret information, Snowden realizes that he hasn’t combed his hair, and fights futilely to keep the cowlick down. The moment provides some levity in what is otherwise a very serious film about a very serious subject—probably the most important leak in history, one that has triggered a global debate about privacy and technology in the digital age.

Two things are striking about the cowlick moment. The first is that Snowden is actually seen struggling. Citizenfour is primarily drawn from twenty hours of footage taken in that Hong Kong hotel room over an eight-day span in June 2013, and throughout, Snowden seems preternaturally calm and hyper-rational. He is committing a grave felony, one that could land him in prison for the rest of his life, will undoubtedly cause many to label him a traitor, and at a minimum, is likely to relegate him to permanent exile, cut off from his family, friends, and country. Yet he never registers even a flicker of doubt. Poitras has said that as a filmmaker, she likes to catch real people in real time making hard decisions. What could be better material than a young man breaking the law to reveal one of the deepest secrets of the most powerful country in the world? Yet for all the drama of those eight historic days in Hong Kong, Snowden comes across more as a character in a film—tough, idealistic, committed—than as a human being grappling with the enormous implications of what his is doing.

Snowden’s effort to tame his unruly hair also reveals the self-consciousness that seems to have pervaded every step of his decision to disclose the NSA files. He knows, of course, that he is being videotaped; he invited Poitras in, after all. (In addition to recording his every waking hour in the hotel room, she produced on the spot a twelve-minute film that was released the same week as the first disclosures, which introduced Snowden to the world as the NSA leaker.) Poitras does her best to conceal her presence as the filmmaker, but everyone involved knows they are being filmed, and that someday this will be shown on movie screens around the world. As a result, there are relatively few instances of real candor.

In this respect, Citizenfour unwittingly reflects the tenor of the digital age not just in its subject matter, but in its style. The film’s content concerns the ability of the government in the twenty-first century to monitor all of us at all times. The goal of the NSA’s mass surveillance programs is to “collect it all,” as the agency itself declared in a PowerPoint slide leaked by Snowden. Technology has made that goal possible in ways that could hardly be imagined a decade ago. Snowden’s disclosures have put the world on notice that these are not abstract or speculative dangers.

But as Poitras’s real-time filmmaking itself reminds us, it’s not just the NSA and its sophisticated computers that make dragnet data collection possible. It’s also a defining feature of a world in which we are personally and collectively complicit in the recording of virtually everything we do. When Deep Throat met Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in a parking garage to share the secrets that came to be known as Watergate, he didn’t bring along a documentary film crew to capture the exchange on film. Snowden did. And that’s not just a reflection of Snowden’s personal choice, but of how much society itself has changed since Watergate. We increasingly live simultaneously in the real world and online—texting, posting, snap-chatting, taking selfies, and recording and sharing our every thought and action, often in the very moment that we are acting and thinking. The border between the real world and the virtual world has become increasingly porous. And just as the NSA’s ability to track each and every one of us has a chilling effect on our freedom, so, too, does the increasingly ubiquitous recording of reality in which we voluntarily participate.

Snowden and Greenwald, the two principal protagonists in the story, are always intensely aware that they are being watched—not by the NSA, but by Poitras. At one point, Greenwald asks Snowden whether he really wants them to reveal that he is the source of the leaks, as he has requested. Snowden reiterates that he does, not only to keep anyone else from being falsely implicated, but because he is proud of what he is doing, and doesn’t want to skulk around like someone who is guilty or ashamed. He is willing to record his own crimes in real time, even if it means handing the government irrefutable evidence of his own lawbreaking in living color. He believes in the justice of his cause, and is willing to live with the consequences. (Of course, by choosing Poitras, who shares his political worldview, to represent him to the world, he has ensured that the representation will be as favorable as possible, and Poitras does not disappoint. But that is all part of the digital age; one carefully orchestrates not only one’s actions, but the representation of them to the world at large.)


Now that technology has made such records of our activity possible, the government has taken an intense interest in them, well beyond national security investigations. Last term, the Supreme Court decided a landmark Fourth Amendment case on the power of the police to search a cellphone upon arresting a suspect. The government argued that it should always be able to conduct such a search, without the need to make any showing of suspicion to a judge. Prosecutors noted that phones often contain powerful evidence, in part because criminals frequently take selfies of themselves and their co-conspirators with the car they just stole, the drugs they just bought, or in some other way recording their own criminal exploits. And even when they don’t self-consciously do so, their phones will often contain other contemporaneous records of the crime, in emails, texts, and location data.

And it’s not just criminals. By choosing to carry cellphones, so that we are always connected to the Internet, can always find our way without asking a human being for directions, and can always find that name on the tip of our tongue with a Google search, we choose to record and telegraph our whereabouts, associations, communications, and thoughts. In the first instance, we share this information only with our phone company, Internet service provider, geolocation service, or search engine. But in that sense, the information is already no longer private. These entities know more about us than our closest family and friends do. Indeed, they know more about us even than we know ourselves—because the computer never forgets.

In the cellphone search warrant case, the Court surprised nearly everyone by ruling unanimously that the police must obtain a warrant before searching the cellphone, and in doing so emphasized that constitutional rules need to be adapted if we are to preserve privacy from technological oblivion. Yet under current constitutional doctrine, once we transmit our information to the phone or Internet company, there are no Fourth Amendment constraints on the government demanding it from those companies. We have, in the Supreme Court’s words, forfeited our “expectation of privacy.”

In their extraordinary revelations about what the NSA and its secret programs have been doing, Snowden’s leaks have shown the precariousness of privacy today. But Citizenfour also demonstrates, unwittingly, that we are part of the problem. We have chosen to broadcast our lives. Whether we can preserve some semblance of privacy from the state when we have surrendered all semblance of privacy to the private sector remains to be seen. It is not impossible. Rules can be crafted that limit government access to information that private companies have, on the ground that government access to such information poses a much greater risk. And as Europe has shown, it is possible to limit by law what the private sector can do with the personal data it gathers about us.

The answers may lie in technology as much as law. Announcements by Apple and Google this month that they will offer their users new encryption technologies, including on the latest iPhones, that will make it impossible for the government to extract data from their phones without their consent, are a prime example. The FBI is none too pleased. The state has gotten used to exploiting technology to monitor us closely, and won’t give up its newfound powers easily.

The impetus for the solution must come from us. If we are to preserve privacy, we must insist on its fundamental value, even as we rely on our smartphones in an ever greater part of our social and financial lives. As Citizenfour illustrates, we can no longer avoid the constant sharing of our data and recording of our activity on digital devices —indeed, we are all too often willing participants in such recording. But we can—and must—stand up and object when governments exploit new technologies to engage in secret dragnet surveillance, thereby eroding the right to privacy that is so essential to human dignity and a free society.


Subscribe and save 50%!

Get immediate access to the current issue and over 25,000 articles from the archives, plus the NYR App.

Already a subscriber? Sign in