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Citizenfour (2014) Review

Updated on November 23, 2014

The Snowden thing just happened last year. It seems a world away now…when is the last time you heard anything about him? And yet what he did was so historically important that he deserves some kind of hero status—and maybe, in the future, he’ll get it. For now, though, he has become a symbol for whistleblowers, and—for those who either aren’t aware of, or are trying to diminish, the magnitude of what he’s done—a symbol of paranoia.

If you’re like me, that might be all you’ve known about our modern Deep Throat. The media has shaped our views, offering both praise and vilification. Digging deeper than that would take a lot of effort, and, if we’re honest, in some ways feels like an admission of paranoia. Lucky for us, then, that we now have an easy way in: Laura Poitras has delivered us a portrait of the whistleblower as the whistle was being blown.

This is the real deal. Snowden contacted the documentarian, along with journalist Glenn Greenwald, to record the meetings, release the sensitive information, and handle the media as they saw fit. By taking himself out of the equation of precisely which information was revealed worldwide, and by putting those decisions in the hands of responsible journalists, he felt that he had absolved himself of any perception of self-benefit, that it would be obvious he was concerned for everyone’s freedom above all. The government felt differently. This unprecedented footage is the actual series of meetings—and mounting threats—which took place in various Hong Kong hotel rooms last year as this controversy was unfolding. And it is harrowing.

The information is harrowing enough on its own, in fact. That the government’s own post-9/11 paranoia has led 1.2 million or more citizens to be placed on government watch lists is unconscionable. Snowden reveals the actual infrastructure of this initiative, including an explanation of the Government Communications Headquarters’ (GCHQ) Tempora program, the world’s first “full tank”—i.e., a system to store content and metadata on everything, and share it with the NSA.

Menwith Hill Station, North Yorkshire (UK)

For those unaware of what metadata is, imagine your typical day of waking up, texting, calling, surfing the internet, going somewhere, using your debit/credit card, your phone again, car GPS, anything you can think of that marks your position and what you are doing; all of this combined creates a picture of you that is stored somewhere for assumptions to be made about you, and your patterns followed. Add to this the programs currently underway (SSO) which allow government access to passive data collection through your devices’ cameras and speakers—anytime, anywhere, on or off—and suddenly you start to realize that privacy is long dead. Especially when people working in government offices with all of this information at their fingertips, and the security clearance to be able to access it, can comb through it indiscriminately using XKEYSCORE and UDAQ.

God forbid you get into trouble one day. Your metapersona awaits you.

This is, of course the tip of the iceberg, and Snowden reveals system after system of information control and exploitation, from SENTRY EAGLE to PRISM. But I’ll leave it to you to decide how much of this is worth knowing. Perhaps ignorance is bliss.

Dagger Complex, Darmstadt (Germany)

In any case, the documentary is aesthetically far better than it needs to be. The camerawork strikes the right balance between idle footage, which allows you the space to let the gravity of this new information sink in, and the actual conversations. Steven Soderbergh helped executive produce, and you can feel his influence in the bold editing and electronic music which drive the narrative relentlessly forward. Little else needs to be said on this. It is enough that a secret, true history has been unveiled before our very eyes, and we have access to it.

The nightmare is not over, either. The systems that haven't been completely overhauled or adapted to this revelation are still ongoing. Two months ago, on September 12, 2014, the U.S. Government threatened $250k in fines per day if Yahoo didn’t hand over user data for PRISM. And they’re just the ones who came forward. If you want to understand what it means for you to be a part of this world, in which all governments are connected and everyone spies on everyone, this is as good a place as any to start. This is the way we live now. We all deserve to at least be aware. The choice to fight back or accept it will be yours.


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    • argentiscriptor profile image

      Alex Daniels 2 years ago from New York

      Invading the privacy of innocent Americans is illegal and unethical. But are you so naïve as to think a twenty-something kid's IG complaint would reverse an executive order started under Bush after 9/11 and expanded by Obama in 2008? Be realistic.

      But you're right, breaking their rules leads to their consequences. Now let's make a little effort to think outside of their box.

    • profile image

      CJ 2 years ago

      We have a legal process and an IG to address concerns. Giving classified information away is treason.