In the USA, 1972, the Watergate scandal shook the foundations of the American political institution in what has been described as the ‘worst political scandal of the twentieth century and the beginning of the end of the Nixon presidency.’But what was the initial issue that kick-started it all? The scandal that has led to every minor political scandal since then being referred to as ‘[insert here]-gate’? Wiretapping phones. In 1972, this and the consequent series of revelations and cover ups caused such an outrage that the most powerful man in the world had to end up resigning from office.
Similarly in 2011, The News of the World newspaper, owned by Rupert Murdoch and News International, was forced out of print by another series of revelations into phone hackings and the subsequent Leveson Inquiry that followed them. These hackings were initially thought the be limited to relatively low profile celebrities such as Hugh Grant, but upon closer investigation it was revealed that it was not only celebrities that were being targeted by the paper but the phones of politicians, the British Royal Family, and even the Murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, and the victims of the 7/7 London bombings.
These revelations are enough to put presidents out of office and papers out of print. So why has there been so little backlash against the NSA and other surveillance agencies since the Edward Snowden leaks of 2013? Leaks that reveal a level of illegal, unconstitutional, surveillance far beyond anything we’ve seen before.
A year later, barring a few articles posted in the Guardian every now and then, you probably haven’t noticed a huge amount of media attention when it comes to the details of the NSA leaks. You most certainly won’t have noticed drastic changes (such as those in the wake of Watergate and the News of the World scandals) being made to government policies when it comes to internet privacy. In fact, generally when the issue is brought up the most common answer seems to be that people don’t seem to mind too much about being spied on by the government on the basis that they ‘have nothing to hide’. If you put yourself in that category Laura Poitras film Citizenfour could be one of the most revealing documentaries you will ever see.
Poitras aims to give people a closer and more accessible look into the extent of the abuse of power being administered by not only the NSA but also the British security service GCHQ and others across the world. Along with lawyer and investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, and The Guardian’s defence and intelligence correspondent Ewan MacAskill, Poitras was one of the 3 people initially contacted by Snowden when he planned to travel to Hong Kong in order to disclose his top secret documents to the world.
Snowden begrudgingly gave Poitras permission to make a film documenting the events that took place during the leaks on the basis that he didn’t want the media to ‘make this all about him’, something Poitras saw as an inevitability. Personally I remember the outrage I felt at the media response in the weeks following the initial leaks as they were seemingly more concerned with trying to find out about Snowden’s private life, the details about his family, his girlfriend, his past etc. than pushing forward the importance of the information he had revealed.
What Citizenfour provides is an excellent insight into Snowden’s thought processes, whilst also reinforcing some of the information that has been floating around for over a year, in an easy and accessible but nonetheless engaging way.
Although the film is a documentary it does have a captivating plot with a lot of twists and turns so I don’t want to give too much away in this article. But one of the more shocking aspects of the film, and Snowden’s disclosures in general, is the scope of NSA’s monitoring. From your debit card transactions, your personal GPS location, your online search history, to the private phone calls of foreign leaders e.g. Angela Merkel. Whatever you do, whoever you are, you are probably being recorded by some agency somewhere and this information, known as metadata, can be used at any point to build a personal profile about you that includes a plethora of personal information you would never want to be shared in a public domain. In fact even if you weren’t to contribute yourself to this metadata collection i.e. by not having a smart phone, credit card or facebook account etc. they can still build a detailed profile on you based on a series of complex algorithms analysing your interactions with other people. It seems almost inescapable.
During a particularly eye opening scene an increasing paranoia develops among the 4 people in the hotel room as Snowden describes, even in their private suite in Hong Kong, the potential ways they are probably being monitored as they speak. For example, any hotel phone can be accessed remotely and turned into a makeshift recording device, something Snowden quickly realises he should have taken into account. As he unplugs the phone from the wall the fire alarm in the hotel suddenly goes off. Is this an attempt to get them out of the building? Were they being monitored the whole time? I’ll leave you to watch the film to find out.
My biggest problem with the way this issue has been portrayed in the media is that, for a variety of reasons, it has not been made into the constant front page news it deserves to be. A year later and Snowden’s revelations have been all but forgotten by much of the mainstream press, they definitely didn’t garner the amount of long term attention that the Watergate and News International phone hacking scandals did. I hope that Citizenfour as an informative and entertaining documentary can get people talking about these things again in a way that the mainstream media has totally failed to do.
Whether you’re interested in the issues surrounding internet privacy, the general abuse of power by governments, or even if you just like watching a well shot, well made, informative documentary, you will come out of Citizenfour shocked, intrigued but most definitely not indifferent when it comes to Snowden and the sacrifice he has made to uphold the principles of liberty and privacy.