Nov 7 2016

Citizenfour and Snowden two perspectives on the same story


We live our lives. We make phone calls, we take pictures, we text. We write emails. How much of all this information about is collected and categorized? Who sees it? What do they do with it? Does any of this make us vulnerable? Is it possible to have any secrets anymore? If we don’t have privacy, do we care?

Citizenfour and Snowden provide different perspectives on an ongoing event. Both films focus on Edward Snowden and his discovery and revelations to the press regarding the National Security Administrations program which indiscriminately gathered data through cyberspying. Both raise the issue of Snowden’s exile in Moscow and the governments’ continuing desire to prosecute him. Both infer the same basic question: How much does our government know about each of us and what might they do with the information? Is security worth privacy? Is privacy a right? Should privacy be sacrificed for the sake of security? Should Snowden be prosecuted for whistle blowing?Does knowledge of our secrets make us more vulnerable than the threat of terrorism does?

Citizenfour is a documentary directed by Laura Poitras, one of the journalists to whom Snowden leaked the documents. In it Snowden explains what led up to his decision, consequences of that decision and his motives. Poitras recorded many of the events while they occurred. While working for the NSA as a computer contractor Edward Snowden discovered that the government is gathering data about private American citizens. After much soul searching Snowden felt the American people had a right to know so he became a whistleblower. This film primarily takes place in a hotel in Hong Kong where Snowden turns over documents to American journalist Glenn Greenwald, who wrote for The Guardian, a British newspaper, and Laura Poitras.

Snowden is a more personal, fictionalized reenactment of the events directed by Oliver Stone This film tells the story of Snowden’s career with the CIA and later as a contractor to the NSA as well as focusing much more on his relationship with his girlfriend Lindsay Mills. Snowden is the hero in both films, though he comes across as deflecting fame and focused on what he considers serious breaches of faith with the American people by its government. The scenes in the hotel room in this film were the most riveting.

The government’s position on this is that the Espionage Act makes Snowden a spy, not a whistleblower, and should be prosecuted. Snowden is currently hiding out in Russia. The Obama administration has prosecuted a lot of whistleblowers and Snowden knew that before he talked. Hillary Clinton has indicated she would prosecute and Trump called Snowden a “bad guy” and hinted that execution was on the table. Third party candidates Johnson and Stein seem amenable to pardoning Snowden. I doubt whether privacy is even a minor campaign issue. In fact polls conducted in 2015 show a majority of Americans agree with the government. Polls conducted in other parts of the world show that a majority of the world support Snowden. Support among Millennials (at least those who know who Snowden is) both here and abroad, is much higher. Perhaps this is because they are digital natives who conduct much more of their affairs online and do not like the idea of the government invading their privacy.

We all do many things to feel safe. We sometimes sacrifice freedom for security. We sometimes make choices for those around us without ever telling them what dangers we’ve avoided on their behalf. Think of all the safeguards we place on our children. Consider the conflict that occurs when our children reach a certain level of personal autonomy and yet we are still intercepting and filtering their communication. Up until a certain point we are within our rights to do so but this does not necessarily translate into consent.

When we are ones making a safety decision for someone else it makes perfect sense to us. We don’t see such actions as violations, but as protection. But when we are ones that decisions like this are being made for, without our knowledge or consent, we feel violated. Is security worth liberty? Does motivation to protect change the fact that what we’ve written in private could someday be made public? Could the day come when this information is used for purposes beyond the scope of national security?

Honestly CitizenFour raised my concerns for my privacy more, as a documentary, that’s what it was supposed to do. Snowden helped me understand the sacrifices Edward Snowden made trying to do what he considered the right thing and to feel empathy for him, and that’s what a fictional story is supposed to do. Of the two films, I liked Citizenfour more. I have been meaning to write about these two films for awhile but I procrastinated. Now, as I think about the election and the many issues facing our country, I wonder if liberty and privacy should be among them. They are for me.