HackThePlanet - Citizenfour

Citizenfour

20 years ago in the United States our favourite film and inspiration for our site design and name was released. To celebrate Hackers we are looking at all our hacking related articles. Steve Taylor-Bryant leaks his thoughts about the Edward Snowden documentary Citizenfour...

A film like Citizenfour is going to be divisive. Whatever your thoughts on Wikileaks, Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, or whistleblowers in general, are they will be strong and they will be political. You can't read or hear the news leaked to the media about what your government is up to without believing really strongly for one side or the other, and the same is true for me. Modern day hacking and whistleblowing is a subject I am incredibly passionate about and so when I was asked for my thoughts on Citizenfour I set about writing only to realise I had crafted a propaganda piece and so had to start again... and again...and again.

In fact Citizenfour had been nominated for and then won an Oscar before I finished this, what I hope is my final draft, with all my personal statements on the subject matter eradicated. Instead I have looked just at the film and the way it is made and the interaction between all the people involved and hopefully left enough of my own personality out of the article, allowing you to see if Citizenfour is suitable to your own viewing tastes in which case you can make your own mind up and release your own passions.

Laura Poitras is a documentary director whose work I'm familiar with after watching Flag Wars and The Oath awhile ago and has a unique style I really admire. Instead of voiceovers or putting her own personality in front of the camera a la Micheal Moore, Laura just gives the information and let's the subject do the talking. Citizenfour is no different. We get to read some online conversations between Laura and Citizenfour and a quick glance at some decrypted emails and then we are off to Brazil to meet Glen Greenwald, a journalist, and writer that broke this particular story in The Guardian newspaper.

After a little research and debate Laura and Glen travel to Hong Kong to meet the whistleblower in person and spend eight days going through the documents, why this young man wanted to leak in the first place, and breaking the news that the National Security Agency has been collecting personal information on not just its own people but people from around the world. With the help of Internet search engines like Google and phone companies, the NSA collated more than just occasional metadata on suspected terrorists, the used the ironically titled Patriot Act to steal everything. Train journeys, bank statements, phone calls, text messages, the list goes on, nothing was safe and thus young man worked for a company with NSA contracts which gave him reading status above and beyond most government employees and higher than just Top Secret.

I call him young man as in the documentary you get to know his name and a little about him but Edward Snowden was all about the spread of governmental reach being reigned in and the information being released. On many an occasion in the interview a shy and almost embarrassed Snowden kept stating he was new to this and he trusted the journalists to do the right thing. In fact the only time Snowden looked anything but sad and depressed, and a little frightened despite his protestations that he knew what was coming, was when he was explaining the documents or ribbing Greenwald on his severe lack of security.

The news is released via The Guardian and Greenwald goes on the television news circuit to explain the documents from his 'source' and also in perfect Portuguese he delivers the information to the Brazil government that the U.S. had been invading the privacy of its citizens. An already disgusted Brazil were left even more angry when Greenwald's boyfriend, himself a Brazilian citizen, was held for hours at an American airport on no other charge than being Greenwald's partner.

As for Snowden? Well the time had come for the journalists to name him. He knew how the NSA worked and police had already been to his home and shaken up his girlfriend. As soon as his identity is out Hong Kong goes quite insane and is swamped with the worlds media. Snowden slightly changed his appearance and with the help of human rights lawyers gets sneaked into Russia. Unfortunately by then his passport had been cancelled and he was stuck in holding at the airport. Enter Assange and Wikileaks to assist and eventually Snowden gets one years allowance to stay in Russia.

Laura and Greenwald continued their leaks although Laura was followed around Hong Kong and feared for her safety in the U.S. now so fled to Berlin. The next we see of Snowden is in a secret location with Greenwald asking about the leak he has from a possible source that could lead all the way to the White House.

How the story of Snowden et al will finally end is yet to be decided as it hasn't yet. The feeling I get is that Greenwald will never give up what he feels is an important story and Laura Poitras will continue to make probing films. Snowden will likely either stay in Russia or be sneaked to somewhere like Ecuador, a non extradition country friendly to the cause. In any case, the story told itself and was allowed to flow by a filmmaker at the top of her game.

Well deserved Oscar win. Hopefully this review is as fair as the film and not blinded by personal opinion. If it is? I can only apologise.

Image - Citizenfour.