Skip to main content

Movie Review: Citizenfour

Citizenfour

Citizenfour

Sona Makker

This piece first appeared in The Advocate--the law school's student-run newspaper.

When The Guardian first leaked the story about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, I was sitting in a conference room at one of largest privacy conferences in the world. I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony. I was surrounded by some of the world’s leading experts in this field who have written texts and treatises on the current state of privacy law in this country. Surveillance wasn’t on the agenda for this conference, but of course, since that day, government surveillance has remained at the top of the public’s agenda.

To some, the man behind the NSA revelations, Edward Snowden, is a hero; to others he is a traitor. Whatever you may believe, I recommend seeing Laura Poitras’ latest documentary-- Citizenfour-- that follows the story of the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden during the moments leading up to the Guardian story that exposed the U.S. government’s secret collection of Verizon cellphone data.

The majority of the film takes places in a hotel room in Hong Kong. Snowden contacted Poitras through encrypted channels. Only after a series of anonymous e-mail exchanges did the two finally trust that the other was really who they said they were-- “assume your adversary is capable of 3 billion guesses per second,” he wrote her. Poitras and Snowden were eventually joined by Guardian reporter Glen Greenwald, whom Snowden contacted under the pseudonym “Citizenfour.” Snowden guides the journalists through the piles and piles of NSA documents as they strategize how to publish and inform the American public about the government snooping programs, including Verizon, AT&T, and other telecom companies sharing phone records with the NSA, FBI access to data from private web companies like Yahoo and Google, and the PRISM program that authorized the collection of e-mail, text messages, and voicemails, of both foreigners and US citizens. Snowden appears to be very calm and quiet as he unveils all of this. He worried that “personality journalism” would end up making the story about him, rather than the substance of his revelations. When Greenwald’s stories were published in the Guardian the three sat together and watched as the media reacted and the story unfolded on TV. “We are building the biggest weapon for oppression in the history of mankind,” said Snowden.

The film also contextualizes the leaks, providing background on the extent of government surveillance. Poitras interviewed William Binney, a former NSA employee who also blew the whistle -- “a week after 9/11, they began actively spying on everyone in this country,” he says. She also includes CSPAN footage of former NSA chief Keith Alexander who flatly denied any kind of snooping programs to Congress.

There is a perfect scene (almost too perfect) where Poitras films Snowden’s reaction to a fire alarm that went off during one of their meetings in the hotel. It was a routine test, but Snowden questions whether or not someone staged it. The timing “seems fishy,” he says. Is the room bugged? As the viewer you start to question whether it was actually a test too, but then you ask yourself “is that even possible?” It seems so outlandish, straight out of a scene from 24 or something. With that, Poitras effectively prompts the viewer to think that the whole thing, the snooping, the surveillance, it all seems outlandish, but clearly, the evidence proves otherwise.

I am optimistic that the law can serve as a powerful counterweight to curbing mass surveillance, but this cannot happen without continued public pressure. The Internet is changing how we live and how we interact with our social institutions. Institutions—how we structure our everyday lives and how we produce social order—are not written in stone, but are mutable and capable of evolving alongside our own evolution as social beings. This evolution is dependent upon the will and foresight of those who are willing to speak up. Citizenfour puts a human face to Snowden, and Poitras does so without painting him as a hero or a villain, but just as a twenty-something concerned citizen whom many can relate to. “This is the first time people can see who Snowden really is,” said Glenn Greenwald after the film’s premiere. “You can decide what you think about him.”

Sona Makker is a second-year law student at Santa Clara University’s School of Law, in the process of earning her Privacy Law certificate.

Photo by Mike Mozart, used without modification under a Creative Commons license.

Nov 25, 2014

Subscribe to Internet Ethics: Views from Silicon Valley

* indicates required