Citizenfour, Surveillance, and the Mainstream

It was on the subway ride back from the movie theatre where a thought crossed my mind:

It is past time that each and every citizen in a somewhat developed country starts to take an interest in questions related to mass surveillance and civic liberties. I don’t think this is the case yet, not even after almost two years after Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the NSA.

As more and more of our communication and activities move to be translated by devices into online interaction, we should be aware of the digital traces we leave behind, how they connect to other people and what kind of implications these connections have to every person tied to our network.

My interest in surveillance and privacy issues started with the Snowden revelations in the summer of 2013 (a good summary of the main findings can be found on The Guardian). It was not like I wasn’t aware also before that of governments’ capabilities when it comes to eavesdropping on their citizens and to online surveillance. In my circle of friends were several activists who didn’t even have a very high profile and who could proof that their e-mails, phone conversations and instant messages had been read through or listened to. And this is Finland we are talking about now, and country with a free internet and no major intelligence agency.

What was so remarkable about Edward Snowden’s revelations was the knowledge of the massiveness of the NSA’s and other intelligence agencies’ spying on ordinary citizens. The storing of metadata and basically all online communication in amounts nearly unimaginable to the human mind seemed hard to believe, especially since it was apparent from the leaked documents that this kind of system was not checked upon by the U.S. government or its juridical system.

Reading last year through journalist Glenn Greenwald’s excellent book, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the U.S. Surveillance State, I began also to understand the deeper philosophical questions related to the issue of mass surveillance. After the Snowden revelations a general pro-surveillance argument was that if one didn’t have anything to hide, it didn’t matter if someone read through their communications. As Greenwald rightly points out, people who know they are being watched started to behave differently. It is Benham’s panopticon all over again: since there is the possibility that you are being watched, you don’t behave as you would in a completely private sphere, limiting your actions, imagination, and in the end also exploring your personality.

As Snowden, Greenwald and others have argued, there is of course the need for state surveillance that targets dangerous organisations and individuals. But what we are seeing in our day, is far from targeted, or checked upon as it should be.

The movie I saw today was Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour, which retells the story of Edward Snowden and their first meeting in Hongkong in June 2013. It is a great movie not so much because of its factual content of the revelations, but because of its portrayal of Snowden himself. Although Snowden points out several times that the story is not about him, but about the NSA and the content of the documents he leaked, he is the evident protagonist of the leak. Spoiler alert: the film ends with the knowledge of a new whistleblower who is operating from inside the NSA. The strongest message of the film seems indeed to be: Snowden will inspire others to follow his footsteps and to stand up for values that their countries’ intelligence agencies seem to have forgotten.

It’s up to the rest of us to try to make the interest for surveillance-related issues more mainstream.

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