EspañolCitizenfour tells the story of one man in a million. When Edward Snowden decided to reveal to the world the evidence of massive data collection carried out by the US National Security Agency (NSA), he also sacrificed the life he’d known up until that point, trading it for a life on the run.
Although the whistleblower downplays his own importance, understanding his character is vital to comprehending how and why the biggest surveillance revelation of the 21st century came about.
When documentarian Laura Poitras received her first communication from Snowden, he was still employed as an NSA analyst, contracted by private firm Booz Allen. This dirty relationship between the federal government and private business is one of the defining threads of his story, but Snowden was preparing to join the fight between “state power and the people’s ability to meaningfully oppose that power.”
Snowden wanted Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald to be the first to know about the information he had access to. “You asked why I chose you,” Snowden wrote to Poitras in one of their first exchanges. “I didn’t. You chose yourself.”
Poitras, whose Citizenfour received the Academy Award for best documentary feature on Sunday, was known along with Greenwald as one of the most prominent critics of the US national security regime. Both had condemned the way Washington had used the concept of “terrorism” to clamp down on individual rights with minimal justification.
The documentary focuses on the consequences of Snowden’s revelations regarding the US PRISM interception program, along with TEMPORA espionage carried out by the United Kingdom’s NSA counterpart, GCHQ. It also addresses the US monitoring of communications by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the highest echelons of Brazilian business and politics. But the role played by the North Carolina native himself is what makes the film stand out.
Taking a Stand
Snowden’s insistence on rigorous security measures for all communications serves to hammer home the reach of US intelligence into the most basic areas of individual privacy. He uses a computer that has never been connected to the internet, a “magic mantle of power” (a sheet or blanket used to cover himself while he writes his password), and a wireless VoIP telephone. His brief jolt of panic after a fire alarm goes off during an interview is a reminder that Snowden faces the constant threat of capture and rendition.
The former NSA analyst takes all of these measures because he knows the intimate details of how governments spy on millions of people around the world. “How can we say the government … is founded on the consent of the governed, if our consent is not informed?” Snowden said at the International Students for Liberty Conference on Friday, February 13. For him, this point is fundamental: governments should obey their citizens, and not be the ones that give the orders.
One man taking a stand was enough to make the most powerful government in the world tremble.
The reaction of most US politicians to his revelations shows that the world in which Snowden aspires to live in is far from being realized. Instead of criticizing and shutting down illegal espionage programs, US officials are instead pursuing the now-exiled Snowden. He fled to Hong Kong, assisted by a group of human-rights lawyers, and ended up in Russia, his passport annulled by the US government.
The film represents the figure of Snowden in all his significance. It shows how he disseminated his revelations, which proved so vital to kick-starting a debate around massive surveillance systems which still remain largely in the shadows today.
It also explores his significance in the eternal struggle waged by the state against the individual. One man taking a stand was enough to make the most powerful government in the world tremble.
Translated by Laurie Blair. Edited by Fergus Hodgson.