Directed by Laura Poitras
Staring Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald & William Binney
In cinemas now
Directed, filmed, and produced by Laura Poirtas, Citizenfour is a documentary about exposing truths those in power would like hidden, and the danger of mass surveillance in our present society.
Focusing on the case of National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden, who exposed the US government body's wholesale spying around the world, it takes the viewer on a thrilling journey to reveal how the story unfolded away from the spotlight.
The film gives a truly uncensored glimpse at how Snowden, a patriotic NSA contractor, became the largest whistleblower in modern history.
This is the final documentary in a trilogy made by Laura Poitras post 9/11 and follows on from My Country, My Country (2006) about the Iraq war and terrorism, and The Oath(2010) about Guantanamo Bay.
In 2013, Poitras was contacted by an anonymous source using the alias “Citizenfour” claiming to be a senior member of the intelligence community. This alias claimed US NSA director Keith Alexander has lied to Congress, “which I can prove”.
What followed led to Citizenfour.
The documentary starts with Poitras explaining how she has become the target of increased surveillance, specifically around airports, after her previous films criticised the US government. She later found out that her name had been added to a secret US watch list.
In communications between Poitras and “Citizenfour” ― later revealed to be Snowden ― the whistleblower tells the filmmaker: “You asked why I picked you. I didn't. You did. The surveillance you've experienced means you've been selected.”
This highlights how journalists are classified as threats to “national security” by the US state apparatus and that Snowden (then a private contractor) had access to such information.
Documents reported by The Intercept ― set up after the Snowden revelations by Poitras, Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill ― show the violation of civil liberties and lack of evidence-based judicial process associated with adding names to the government's watch list.
In an article showing the large numbers of people being added to watch lists, The Intercept said: “Of the 680,000 people caught up in the government’s Terrorist Screening Database ― a watchlist of 'known or suspected terrorists' that is shared with local law enforcement agencies, private contractors, and foreign governments ― more than 40 percent are described by the government as having 'no recognized terrorist group affiliation'.”
It said: “16,000 people, including 1,200 Americans, have been classified as 'selectees' who are targeted for enhanced screenings at airports and border crossings.”
This is a large-scale violation of privacy and transparency within one of the most powerful state organisations in the world.
Another case highlighted in the documentary is that of Ladar Levison, the owner of encrypted email service Lavabit. Levison decided against handing over private encryption keys to the NSA, and was later forced to shut down his business.
In the documentary, Levison said: “It's supposed to be difficult to invade somebody's privacy, because of how intrusive it is, because of how disruptive it is.
“What good is the right to free speech, if it's not protected in the sense that you can't have a private discussion?”
The debate of privacy around surveillance is a two-part question. How much privacy should we forfeit to government and what safeguards need be in place to protect this private information?
It should come as no surprise that previous public hearings into the actions of the NSA ― in which NSA officials blatantly lied ― show one of the reasons why Snowden felt obliged to blow the whistle on it.
What does it say about the state of democracy when high ranking officials knowingly misinform the institutions set up to defend democracy and, even when this is exposed, are still not held accountable?
There is far more focus on catching whistleblowers than there is on solving any of the concerns about democracy, like civil liberties and privacy issues that have been raised thanks to the courageous efforts by whistleblowers such as Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning, William Binney and Snowden.
Snowden has spoken candidly about the level of unfettered access he was granted as a contractor. In the documentary, Snowden tells Ewan MacAskill of The Guardian that the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) has “probably the most invasive network intercept program in the world” because it is a “full take"” program that includes content and metadata on everything.
The program was called “Operation Tempora”. Snowden tells Poitras that the NSA love the Tempora program because “they aren't allowed to do it in the US. The UK lets us query it all day long.”
The Guardian later published the article on Snowden's Tempora revelation, but after legal intimidation from Downing Street and under the watchful eye of two GCHQ employees, chose to destroy their copy of the Snowden files and avoid legal action.
What this documentary does so well is engage the viewer in a conversation that is thought-provoking, rather than patronising.
It shows the apparatus of mass surveillance, watch-lists, state hacking ― and the violations of privacy and democracy ― in a realistic way. It proves such full-scale state surveillance is no longer in the realm of science fiction. It is unequivocal fact.
For this reason, everyone from the most avid Snowden follower to a newcomer to the issues involved, should make it a priority to watch this documentary.
At the end of the day, without proper accountability, transparency and control over the state by its citizens, our privacy and the very foundations of democracy these programs claim to protect, are threatened.