"Laws written by cats have a way of adapting when the mice figure out a workaround. Sneak cameras into factory farms and you may get public outrage, grass-roots momentum or the passage of more humane laws. Then again, you might get laws that outlaw undercover journalism or redefine it as 'domestic terrorism'. Only mice have to obey the law. The cats? They can take it or leave it." - Peter Watts
A documentary by Laura Poitras, "Citizenfour" revolves around Edward Snowden, a former CIA system's administrator who blew the lid on a global spy-network run primarily by the United States' National Security Agency. Designed for global surveillance, this clandestine network intercepts mountains of data, recording most global internet and telecommunications traffic, as well as international traffic flowing via undersea fibre optic cables.
All superpowers throughout history have spied on their populaces and neighbours, but none were able to cook up anything as insidious as the NSA. Email records, telephone conversations, shopping records, medical records, banking records, internet records, text messages, digital profiles...virtually everything with a digital or electromagnetic footprint is automatically gobbled up by this network. Capable of simultaneously recording and storing every phone-call occurring within entire continents, this network extends across the planet, gathering data and meta-data on millions of ordinary people around the world. It also tracks cellphone locations, can hack cellphone conversations, and is capable of hacking its way into most encrypted consumer products. Such data mining occurs thanks to NSA alliances with major companies (Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Amazon, Youtube, AOL, Skype etc) and major countries (Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Switzerland and Israel). The NSA also spies on and collects data stored within the data centres of major corporations, giving it access to the daily habits, thoughts, words and actions of billions. Currently this spy-network has numerous ancillary branches (PRISM, Tempora, Stellar Wind, Dishfire, MUSCULAR, Project 6, Stateroom, ECHELON, CO-TRAVELER), most of which have changed their names or expanded further since Snowden's 2013 revelations.
Thus far, such acts of "warrantless surveillance" have not been legally challenged or meaningfully reformed. Indeed, this spy-network has only gotten larger. The NSA has defended its networks, stating that it "stops terrorists", but revelation after revelation has shown that they have no impact on terrorism, and are primarily used to spy on civilians, political activists, diplomats, commercial entities, environmental groups, corporations and global policy makers. The NSA, in short, is in the business of economic espionage, protecting Western mega-corporate, mega-trade and mega-banking interests. "The police are the right arm of corporate power," Jack London wrote in 1902; the NSA now functions the same way. Consider, for example, project OLYMPIA, which exclusively spies on Brazil's ministry of mining and energy. Even when NSA intel is used in "warzones" to kill "terrorists" ("We kill people based on meta-data." - Michael Hayden, NSA director), such extra-legal killings are "validated" via "inference" not "proof".
Stylistically, "Citizenfour" recalls the paranoid, conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s. It's also unique in the way it captures history, the documentary simply watching as Snowden locks himself in a hotel room and begins leaking information to journalists. These scenes are quiet, intimate, and creepily banal, like being in Gandhi's bedroom the day he decided to take on the largest Empire in the world. Elsewhere director Laura Poitras captures Snowden's naivety, intelligence, strength and fragility, as well as the faint traces of doubt that periodically wash across his face.
Today, nobody cares that global surveillance has effectively inverted the law (everyone is now assumed to be guilty). Populaces have reached a state of impotency, apathy and disinterest. "If you're not doing anything wrong, why should you worry?" is itself the prevailing attitude of world leaders, their words echoing the words Hermann Goring used to defend Nazi surveillance policies half a century earlier ("little fish have nothing to fear").
But anyone familiar with history should be worried. For most of the last century, US intelligence has been at war with civil rights activists, minorities, workers and student activists, killing, destroying careers, ruining innocent lives and manipulating both the media and political process. These networks cause worse damage abroad, responsible - directly and indirectly - for countless millions of deaths. Sadly, the last time NSA spying programs (the SHAMROCK and MINARET leaks of the 1970s) were revealed, the political reforms that followed turned out to be far worse than what we had before (the secret FISA courts). Will history repeat itself?
"We are building the largest weapon for the oppression of mankind," Snowden says in "Citizenfour", before hinting that these networks should be feared primarily because they allow for the controlling of information. Historically, all social progress has been made by the ability to talk, think, hide, break the law and oppose the ruling ideology. But the NSA's networks allow for the policing of thought, information and the pinpoint crushing of dissent (already the US military is running thousands of sock-puppets on internet forums, so as to steer conversations); keep the masses distracted, on script and consuming.
Unsurprisingly, Snowden leaked his material to the Guardian newspaper, the last mainstream left-wing newspaper in the United Kingdom, and a woman (Laura Poitras) with radical credentials. Also present is journalist Glenn Greenwald, who is revealed to be homosexual. Greenwald's presence recalls, not only transgender whistle-blower Bradley Manning, but the many whistleblowers/defectors of the 1970s, whom the CIA and NSA attempted to slander with the label of "homosexual" (they were all heterosexual). Proudly seeing itself as a giant cauldron of masculinity, the US military has long deemed everything opposing it to be "soft", "impure" and "feminine". Today, in our more politically correct world, the US military has changed its stance. Orwell writ large, Western warriors are now "feminine", "caring", "soft" and "compassionate", killing you gently in the name of love. How can you oppose monsters so enlightened?
8.9/10 – See "The War You Don't See" (2011).
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