Last night the cybersecurity firm F-Secure hosted a screening of Oliver Stone’s latest film, Snowden - a dramatisation of how the eponymous hero went from working deep inside the American Intelligence apparatus, to becoming an internationally famous whistleblower who has been lionised and demonised in equal measure. Essentially, F-Secure probably couldn’t have asked for a better sales pitch.
This post was originally posted on 24th November, but since the Snowden movie hits UK cinemas today we're giving it another push.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Snowden, and the film skips back and forth between the tense days spent in a Hong Kong hotel room after he leaked his insider knowledge to Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and The Guardian, and flashbacks through his career and his relationship. It’s hard to know exactly what was real and what was a dramatic invention by the filmmaker - but it makes for a very powerful explanation of exactly what programmes the NSA is running, and what they are capable of, and the potential human consequences of such actions.
And even if you’re already broadly familiar with what was exposed, like I was, seeing the implications packaged up into Stone’s film, it’s basically impossible to leave the cinema without feeling profoundly pessimistic and a little bit paranoid to boot. We know that governments are capable of accessing all of our private data, we know that they can watch us through our cameras… and yet… there’s nothing we can do. It’s impossible to opt-out of the modern world, and if you like having friends it is even impossible to opt out of specific services like Facebook.
Perhaps the strongest point in the film was as the film reached its crescendo, when Gordon-Levitt’s Snowden talks about how the apparatus that the United States has built could be misused by a future leader. The same technologies that are currently used for surveilling terrorists and bad guys could easily be turned on anyone: Political opponents, political activists… or you. He calls this “turnkey tyranny” - the idea that we don’t know who will be in charge in the future, so handing them essentially unlimited surveillance powers could backfire.
Here’s the real Edward Snowden talking about the same concept in a weirdly prescient video from January this year:
What is obvious is that such pervasive surveillance is fundamentally incompatible with living in a free and democratic society. If the state can watch your every move, and access your every private thought, dissent becomes impossible.
And watching our vantage of late 2016 this feels much less abstract and theoretical. Because not only are current practices horrifying - but now we also know that on January 20th these immensely powerful tools are going to be handed over to President Donald Trump.
Threats to Democracy
If you grew up in a liberal democracy, say, Britain or the United States, it wouldn’t be surprising if you have a bias towards the idea that progress is inevitable. That whatever challenges we face today, things will get slowly better. After all, that’s all we know - to glance at recent history and the lived experiences of ourselves and our older relatives, it seems that progress is on the march: We’re living longer, we’re wealthier, we’re more tolerant and have technologies that would look like witchcraft to people just a few decades earlier.
Even when we do experience bad news, our gut tells us that eventually everything will be fine.
Presumably, (as the excellent Diamond Geezer recently pointed out) if you were unfortunate enough to grow up in different circumstances, things may look rather different. If you were born in Leipzig, Germany in the 1920s, you would have gone from living in a relatively free, relatively democratic Weimar Republic, to living under Nazi and then Soviet tyranny. If you lived there, or indeed in many other parts of the world today (such as Syria), would you really think that the future was so bright?
What is troubling is that for all of Trump’s incoherent campaign promises, the one thing that he is fairly consistent on is that he does not appear to respect the norms of democracy, and that he has, at the very least, some authoritarian tendencies that could threaten the foundations of western democracy.
For example, during the campaign he relentlessly attacked the media, he repeatedly claimed that the election was going to be rigged despite no evidence existing and even suggested at one point that he wanted to throw his opponent, Hillary Clinton, in jail. This goes against some of the key norms that keep a society democratic and free, such as respecting the peaceful transition of power and the political independence of the justice system.
Even without the tools of the NSA at his disposal, Donald Trump is a threat to democratic norms. Even if, for the sake of argument we accept that tracking down terrorists is a legitimate use of such tools (though I would argue it isn’t), the huge question now is whether, as President, he will deploy them to be used even more extensively.
Surely it could be tempting for him to spy on the “failing” New York Times, to dig up dirt on the journalists who will be reporting on him? Or what if he used the tools to harass millions of ordinary Muslims around the world - using their private information to harass them?
In one particularly chilling scene in the film (which was presumably artistic license rather than a recreation of something Snowden actually encountered) was during CIA training when the instructor explained to Snowden and his classmates how the agency supposedly isn’t breaking the fourth amendment of the US constitution, which bans searches without a warrant, because when the President instructs his agency to do something, "it isn’t illegal". So much for checks and balances. So much for democracy?
What Oliver Stone makes clear is that because of the layers of secrecy and the “need to know” basis on which these programmes operated, few people were in a position to blow the whistle on what is going on. Though post-Snowden, this perhaps isn’t even the most trouble aspect of bulk surveillance.
What is most troubling is that now the world does know about these bulk surveillance tools… it has done nothing.
Snowden did the world a great service by revealing the extent of American surveillance apparatus - and yet the reaction of politicians both in America and abroad has been to continue on with business as usual. In the UK, as GCHQ’s role in bulk surveillance was exposed by Snowden, MPs voted to legitimate it rather than dismantle it.
President Obama has given no indication that he thinks there should be any reforms and just the other day, he implied that he won’t pardon Snowden before he leaves office. And despite the political earthquake Trump’s victory has caused, despite the hopes of fellow whistleblower Bill Binney, this appears to be one area where the status quo will remain, if not get worse. Trump’s pick for a new CIA director has previously suggested that Snowden should be executed. I do not expect Trump to turn out to have secretly been a liberal all along.
I’d love to end on a positive note but sadly, I’m struggling to see any. A man who does not accept democratic norms is about to take the reins of the most powerful surveillance apparatus ever constructed. Politicians don’t seem to care. And there are now seemingly only trivial checks and balances on what he could do with the system.
Our guts tell us the future is going to be fine - but it strikes me that this time that may not be the default outcome. If you believe in democracy, freedom and privacy - this time around, you’re going to have to actively do something about it.
Snowden is out today.
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