I watched Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning documentary CitizenFour a few weeks ago – documenting Edward Snowden’s decision to leak information about the NSA’s practices of collecting large amount of arbitrary data on American citizens. The film depicts a week spent in Hong Kong with journalist Glenn Greenwald and The Guardian’s Ewen MacAskill as they begin breaking the story internationally in June 2013.
The film is surprisingly captivating, given that it is shot almost entirely in the confines of a hotel room. Through a careful sense of pacing, we quickly perceive the gravity of the situation Snowden is in. On the one hand he seems calm and collected, having made his peace with whatever may come from his decision to share these NSA documents. On the other, we see him become increasingly cautious as he covers his laptop with a blanket while typing in a password, and jumpy when an unforeseen fire alarm goes off in his hotel.
If you haven’t seen the movie, I’m not spoiling anything by mentioning that the claims Snowden is making are outrageous. Despite a lot of media attention being focused on Snowden himself, as a traitor, spy, hero, villain, whistleblower etc., his claims about the NSA and other international intelligence agencies are far more shocking than any label they have been able to pin to him. Leaked documents reveal numerous NSA global surveillance programs, many of them purportedly run with the cooperation of large telecommunication companies and European governments. It has been nearly two years since these stories first broke, so these claims are nothing new. What I found shocking, was the ease with which the built-in cameras and microphones in our mobile and digital devices can allegedly be remotely activated and used to spy on anyone, at any time.
Why should we care, you may ask? Maybe you have nothing to hide? It’s true, raw data from your GPS location, phone conversations, Google searches or your health data may not be very useful on its own. There are serious implications however when all of this data can be mined and sold by brokers to any interested party. As MIT Media Lab professor Sandy Pentland recently pointed out in The Guardian, tech giants like Google are wading into new territory as they collect more and more data about their users. He suggests that Google needs to separate their data business from the rest of their revenue, as they begin to invest in smart home gadgets like Nest and Project Loon – using hot air balloons to bring the web to parts of the world without internet access. He explains: “As they go out and try to change the world, they have to revisit their ethical core because now all of a sudden they’re not just doing one function, they’re changing people’s lives in fundamental ways… You could imagine what they suggested with Nest as being real so that in fact there’s a data bank, that you own your data and you contribute to that and it has the same sort of agency that a bank does where they are certifying to the government that you own your data and they are not doing things that you haven’t approved in a knowledgeable informed way.” The world Snowden is describing in CitizenFour seems a long way away from this, claiming that large corporations such as Apple, Facebook, Google and Verizon are freely giving up information about their customers to the American government.
I find it intimidating to write about this subject, because it seems so vast and sprawling. I don’t have the resources or knowledge to investigate the NSA, or our Canadian equivalent the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), but I do find it very concerning when journalist Jacob Appelbaum states in CitizenFour that the words “privacy” and “liberty” are being used interchangeably, and that everyone is saying “privacy is dead”. So what does that make of our freedom? And what can we do about it?
My initial reaction to the film was fear, hopelessness, and shock at how bad the situation is, not only in the US, but internationally. Canada’s recently proposed Bill C-51 makes broad connections between the notion of the security of Canadian citizens, terrorism, and the need to take sweeping surveillance measures without the intervention of Canadian courts. In a recent interview with Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, Snowden likened Bill C-51 to the American Patriot Act. He goes on to state that: “Canadian intelligence has one of the weakest oversight frameworks out of any Western intelligence agency in the world”. I find it troubling that Bill-C-51 would increase the powers of the CSE, without adding any oversight mechanisms.
Other reactions to the film are more hopeful. In a recent Medium article, academic and political activist Lawrence Lessig praises the fact that the film was even made and distributed – describing this as a “hopeful fact about democracy”. Lessig steers clear of getting into the detailed content of Snowden’s NSA leaks, yet acknowledges the serious impact of his actions: “Snowden’s aim was to get us to see just how far our government had strayed. Finally, we have a use for that absurd battleship banner: Mission Accomplished”. The fact that the film took home the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature was a step in the right direction, despite quips from MC Neil Patrick Harris that Snowden couldn’t make it to the ceremony, “for some unknown treason”. Sigh.
So what can we do? Having worked on a few documentary websites and digital strategies, I find it disappointing that the CitizenFour website offers nothing in the way of resources to learn more about the issues addressed in the film. I understand that making the film in and of itself was very challenging for Poitras and the crew, but this where the Producer and Distributor should be more involved in its roll-out. If you haven’t seen the film, you could start with that. (I watched it recently on Videotron’s VOD Illico service.) Beyond this, check out organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, The Intercept, Reported.ly or Democracy Now. It’s easy to follow Glenn Greenwald, Jacob Appelbaum or WikiLeaks on Twitter. Even if I don’t grasp the nuances of all these online conversations, I feel a responsibility to frequently consult alternative news sources, to try and get a more nuanced and multifaceted understanding of the issues.
In terms of securing digital devices, I’m no expert. You can put a sticker on your built-in laptop camera, try using a password manager (I use LastPass), and turn off location services on your mobile (which I don’t always remember to do, as evidenced above). None of these things are fool proof, but they might buy you a bit of piece of mind. I am most concerned about all of the cloud and social apps that I use constantly, not only for personal use, but for work, such as Gmail, Google calendar, Dropbox, Google docs, Facebook, Slack, etc. I use these programs ALL THE TIME. They’ve become so much of my life that it would be very inconvenient to try and find secure yet equally practical alternatives. While this sounds like a pain, the most convincing argument I’ve heard for researching and adopting alternative secure software and social platforms, is again from Snowden in his CJFE interview: “We’re creating a kind of herd immunity that helps protect everybody everywhere… He highlights the importance of using encrypted communications, even if you don’t think you’re doing anything that needs to be protected. With widespread adoption of these technologies, the people who really do need to use encrypted communications, such as the journalists who are persecuted abroad for fair reporting of controversial topics, are better protected, less easy to identify, and less stigmatized.” With this in mind he recommends SpiderOak for file sharing, Signal for messaging on iPhones, and RedPhone or TextSecure for messaging on Android phones. I’ve also heard that encrypted messaging app Zendo is very secure.
While there is clearly no one size fits-all solution, I would urge you to start with one of these steps. Talk to people about it, watch the movie. I am rarely so militant on this blog, but I truly believe that widespread and unregulated surveillance and data collection are the greatest threats to our freedom today.