We couldn’t have picked a better time to be invited to a roundtable with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and a number of experts and campaigners from the worlds of human rights and online privacy. We sat down to chat in a swanky London hotel mere days after the Investigatory Powers Bill passed the House of Lords, and the mood in the room was sombre, to say the least.
“I kind of feel like we’ve failed as campaigners to communicate the impact of this,” Mairi Clare Rodgers, Head of Strategy and Campaign for Liberty, said. “We’re always talking about ‘this data will be held, hundreds of pieces of information are being held on you’, and ‘held’ sounds so passive. ‘So what?’... And that’s where we struggled, because it’s not passive.”
But while it might be too late to stop the so-called Snooper’s Charter from passing into statute, there’s still time to get the message about government surveillance out to a wider audience. And that’s where Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s new film, Snowden, comes in handy. Directed by Oliver Stone and putting a human face on an issue that sounds rather technical and complex, Gordon-Levitt (and the various campaigners and experts around the table) hopes that the film will help to educate people, rather than just preaching to the converted. “Great. I’m at a table with the good guys,” Gordon-Levitt joked, pleased.
The Roundtable Panel: Mairi Clare Rodgers, Liberty; Silkie Carlo, Liberty; Barbora Bukovska, Article 19; Scott Carey, Techworld; Joseph Gordon-Levitt; Harmit Kambo, Privacy International; Abigail Chandler, Gizmodo UK.
The problem campaigners have faced is that Snowden’s revelations back in 2013 were met with some outrage and a whole lot of shrugs. “[I]n the last 13 years, all of your communications, everything, has been chewed up by this machine. You’ve been watched,” Harmit Kambo, Campaigns and Development Director for Privacy International, explains. “You tell people that and they think ‘okay, well I haven’t noticed’.” Barbora Bukovska, Senior Director for Law and Policy at Article 19, agrees. “If you tell people that somebody comes and opens their Christmas presents, obviously they wouldn’t like it, but they don’t see this connection with the data.”
The film Snowden touches upon the ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ mentality that governments are keen for their citizens to have. But that’s a notion that seriously worries Gordon-Levitt. “One thing I found while having conversations with people who are less versed in this type of stuff, who are more prone to say ‘well, I have nothing to hide’, one thing I learned is that there was a slogan that went ‘if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear’, and that was a slogan of the Nazis. And they said that all day long. That was a staple slogan of the Nazi party, which should tell you something, right?”
The election of Donald Trump as the next President of the United States is also something that made the people around the table a little nervous. Silkie Carlo, Policy Officer in Technology and Surveillance for Liberty, thinks “that there’s going to be a real change, that now what Snowden warned of in ‘turnkey tyranny’ [might be happening], because now you’ve got someone in power who has committed to surveilling all Mosques, banning all Muslims, deporting millions of people.”
It’s something Gordon-Levitt has worried about too. “I’ve had a few conversations with friends of mine who have said to me, you know, ‘before you made this movie about mass surveillance it seemed like a problem, I understood it was a problem but I frankly can’t say I was really that upset by it, and now I am. When I think about these mass surveillance tools in the hands of this government it takes a whole other flavour for me’... I think them revisiting it now in this situation, with this new president-elect, people will have a different emotional reaction to it.”
While some whistleblowers, including Bill Binney, had been optimistic about a Trump presidency, it now seems that with the appointment of Mike Pompeo as CIA Director, Trump is planning on stepping up government surveillance rather than reducing it.
But while the battle to stop the Investigatory Powers Bill may have been lost (as was the battle to keep Trump out of the White House), there are still things campaigners can work on. While Snowden’s revelations may not have forced governments to stop spying on citizens, Barbora Bukovska think that at least there is now “more opportunity for people to use encryption, or at least to be aware of it. And I think this is also actually what celebrities can promote. In the same way that the fashion industry did a lot of work for fur, telling people not to wear fur, so yours is to use encryption.”
Gordon-Levitt admits to using Signal, and remarks that “The folks who have really stepped up I think are the technology companies, right? And that’s maybe where Snowden has had his greatest impact. Apple, for example, maybe first and foremost, has really prioritised security and encryption in their software and hardware, much more so than they probably would have if it hadn’t been for Snowden.”
Silkie Carlo agrees, but says that “Open Whisper Systems who make Signal, they’re the real heroes because they design their software through and through with privacy in mind so that when they’re asked for data on their customers, which they are, they have been, they can say ‘yeah, sure, here’s what we’ve got’, and it’s a timestamp. Because they’ve built their whole software to not collect data from their users in the first place.”
Gordon-Levitt has been exploring surveillance, online privacy and the rapidly advancing digital world through his Hit Record organisation too, making a short documentary entitled Are You There, Democracy? It’s Me, The Internet, which included Edward Snowden’s thoughts on the matter. “What he basically said was certainly there are things that seem negative, but if you zoom out, over all technology is ultimately having a net positive effect.”
With online surveillance, trolls, and the risk of social media becoming an echo-chamber that just makes people’s views more and more entrenched, there’s not a lot of positivity around at the moment for the digital world. But Gordon-Levitt doesn’t see the current direction of technology and government surveillance as all bad. “Certainly at this moment especially, what with the recent election in the US, or this bill you’re talking about passing in the UK, that does feel like a step backwards, and I’m no expert historian, but it does seem like history moves forward, but it doesn’t only move forwards. Sometimes it goes sideways, sometimes it goes backwards and then it keeps moving forwards. Sometimes maybe in a way it has to go backwards a little bit before it can go further forwards. I don’t know if that sounds like a generic pep talk or something, but I do think that that’s overall true, but that doesn’t mean we should stop fighting.”
So how can we keep fighting, with these government surveillance powers now signed into the law books? Well, we can start encrypting our data, we can keep the pressure on the government to never increase the scope of surveillance or to roll back on surveillance, and we can be aware of our own vulnerability in the digital world.
“I’ve had a Band-Aid on my [computer] camera, to be honest I don’t have one on there now,” Gordon-Levitt admitted. In perfect seriousness, Silkie Carlo replied, “put it back.” Not to be paranoid or anything, but maybe we should all take her advice.
Snowden is out in the UK today, and the NSA probably already know if you're planning on booking tickets.