Citizenfour left me feeling confused and unsettled. Has it really been five years since the Snowden leaks? Has it really only been five years since the Snowden leaks? After the bru-ha-ha died down, did anything change? Were any programs stopped? Was our privacy restored?
After all is said and done, was it worth it? Was it worth Snowden giving up his life to go public with information about government programs that violate, if not laws and our Constitution, then the spirit of America?
Watching Citizenfour and the assumption that the revelation of this data would change the world was deeply saddening. The end game is also quite ironic: idealist American fighting for privacy, freedom, and the curtailing of government powers ends up living in a profoundly unfree autocratic state (Russia).
The documentary was filmed by Laura Poitras, one of the journalists that Edward Snowden initially approached about sensitive government information that he acquired during his work at the NSA. She films the initial days of meeting with Snowden through the initial days after the revelations went public. What would be interesting would be a follow-up: So what happened or changed in electronic surveillance since that time?
Poitras films Glen Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill from The Guardian meeting with Snowden in his Hong Kong hotel room. What is the information that he has? What does it mean? How best to disseminate it? How to communicate electronically but safely?
Citizenfour also shows other meetings and talks, such as Snowden meeting with human rights lawyers as he was seeking to flee Hong Kong or William Binney, a former NSA crypto-mathematician, talking to the German Bundestag after Snowden’s revelations.
The information that Snowden revealed basically showed that the US is hoovering up data from anyone and anything in the world, with telecoms as accomplices. The US, in the grand tradition of authoritarian regimes, is seeking to acquire as much knowledge of the population as possible as a method of control. (A tactic eerily similar to Putin and his intelligence agency roots.) If democracy dies in the darkness, it also dies without privacy and the accompanying freedoms of thought and expression.
As Greenwald points out in a talk to the European Parliament, the US is engaged in electronic surveillance not for national security. National security is just a convenient bogey-man—fear is a tool in the compliance toolbox. Rather gathering this data and monitoring people is in the industrial, financial, and economic interests of companies. It comes down to, I would say, power and money.
I still am not entirely sure how I feel about the leaks or Snowden. It is not clear to me that he is a criminal or a martyr, just someone who was living his conscience and his conscience wouldn’t let him sit by as the government betrayed our trust and the Constitution.
Since he went public with the information he had, I have no proof that things have gotten better. In fact, I assume that they have only gotten worse or accelerated and that the US has improved its techniques and its reach into our lives.
Knowledge is power but in a twisted way I am not sure that making the knowledge public was empowering. There was nothing the public could do about it. Instead, knowledge as power speaks exactly to what the US government is doing: control and power through the accumulation of information about the people.