March 1, 2015 Leave a comment
I can’t admit to having paid close attention to the string of stories sparked by Edward Snowden’s decision to leak classified information. I got the broad gist of what was revealed, simultaneously horrifying and unsurprising, but certainly wouldn’t know what had previously been revealed enough to compare to what this documentary reveals. Does it reveal new and distinctly potent classified information as one man suing the filmmakers claims? Does that even matter, as documentary film should receive every bit of the protection that the newspapers that certainly published classified information in the initial release do.
Viewed as a piece of filmic art, the content is actually a bit secondary. What Citizenfour is artistically most interesting as is as a procedural of sorts on how to blow a whistle. Apparently it takes more than putting your lips together. Instead there is a carefully planned series of relationship building, secrecy tactics, PR planning and the lot. Following the process as it happens, with this level of detail is fascinating apart from the weight of the content. Superficial matters like the real charisma of Snowden, who easily lends himself to speculation of the casting of someone like Alexander Skarsgard to play him in a fictionalized film.
Of course, it is impossible to avoid talking about the content of his revelation. To some degree, the idea that this revelation was damaging to national security is kind of laughable mostly because the surveillance state it reveals seems too encompassing to escape. Knowledge of it provides little recourse, and those who do find the capabilities to avoid detection probably already were pursuing those strategies even without specific knowledge of the programs. I still think the Oscars joke about Snowden missing the show “for some treason” was funny, but obviously this is not that. It is information that provoked an important debate, though it is hard to say if it actually reveals illegal actions (if only because the legal barriers are so soft) and thus by the letter of the law, Snowden might not be legally justified to violate the confidentiality.
Obviously, the ramifications for this all-knowing government, if it were used out of malice, would be catastrophic. Though the idea of a government that turns a blind eye to these channels of communication is kind of horrifying in its own right. At this point most of the concern is speculation. There is a lot of fear about those reporting this story, or similar stories, being at risk of target, but there’s little actual ramification to suggest this is more than paranoia. It seems better suited to less hyperbolic conversations about liberal principle. We don’t need to label the government Big Brother to recognize that we are shading into ill advised territory.
Certainly my fear of the government collecting my data to use against me is small enough that it loses out in the cost benefit analysis of actually taking steps to evade it. Dropping off the grid might be a strategy, but it seems like a terrible life. Truth be told, I’m vastly more worried about private actors. I’m worried about hackers, in some respects emboldened by the NSA when they opted to exploit the Heartbleed bug instead of work to get it closed. I’m worried about internet hate mobs that violate people’s privacy to intimidate and terrorize with tactics like doxxing. In the realm of perceived threats, these seem like much more likely digital threats than the government collecting all my data and using it to hurt me. This tends to be where Snowden and the main journalist here, Glenn Greenwald, lose me, but especially enabled by the film’s craft, I feel grateful for their work here.