Tag Archives: Citizenfour

Communication, Coercion and Conditioning

I know that I’m supposed to be writing a response to CitizenFour but that’s not going to happen.

I cannot calmly discuss the “issues” that surround the invasion of our country from the inside out.  I do not want to talk about it.  I want to yell and scream and pound my fists on the table; how can we be so stupid, so careless, as to have given over our sweet, precious democratic republic  to a bunch of thugs…..to the enemy within?

There is nothing the Internet can offer us that will ever compensate for the loss of values, principles and ideals that in the past have allowed citizens to conduct their affairs for their own benefit rather than for the benefit of a ruler or agency or shadow government.  And it’s made worse by the fact that while we continue to elect representatives, none of them seem capable of actually restoring democratic principles — to anything.

We’re in deep shit, my friends.






How do we fight the injustice of government surveillance and its infringement on our privacy?

For quick reference, here are the articles and videos I will be referring to:

While reading Wu and Bilton’s articles, I kept thinking about movies that dramatize surveillance paranoia. In particular, Wu’s New Yorker article made me think of Eagle Eye and I, Robot, although these are both extreme examples of technological surveillance where artificial intelligence drives technology to begin surveillancing and policing humans for our own safety. Funnily enough, Bilton’s opening comment that “Anyone who can watch you will watch you” immediately brought to mind the far less anxiety-inducing Truman Show. I think this line corresponds wonderfully to the shot where Jim Carrey is entertaining himself by drawing on the bathroom mirror with soap as the television audience watches intently:

Truman Show

surveillance to the extreme

And in response to Bilton’s suggestion that even our World of Warcraft activities are being monitored, I would like to express pity for the poor soul doing that surveillancing.

Both Wu and Bilton seem to assume that we, the readers, have an inherent mistrust in the government. It’s probably a safe assumption to make, but even so, each article overlooks some important information.

In his argument that seeks to create awareness of the fact that convenience for consumers through the centralization of the Internet has made it easier for the government to compromise our privacy, Wu makes no mention of September 11th or the USA PATRIOT Act, despite his historical survey of electronic privacy. He also surprisingly omits Obama’s signing of the PATRIOT Sunsets Extension Act, which extended provision for roving wiretaps, the library records provision, and surveillance of lone wolves (thank you, Wikipedia). (In opposition to this omission, I think that Poitras very effectively discusses the Obama administration’s complicity in the breech on citizens’ privacy, although admittedly Poitras had an additional year and knowledge of the events depicted in Citizenfour to take a position.) Also, I find it strange that in his conclusion Wu makes reference to the assassination of President McKinley by anarchist Leon Czolgosz alongside the government surveillance during WWII and the Cold War. Not that I want to advocate for presidential assassinations in any way, but isn’t citizen retaliation against the government (à la Edward Snowden) exactly what is needed in this situation?

I find Bilton’s article to be much more sensational in its viewpoint with a tendency for the nostalgic and melodramatic. (I’m actually reminded of the 19th c. Well-Made Play. During the Act Four climax, some piece of evidence, e.g. a letter or photograph, is brought forward to incriminate the play’s antagonist. Reference to Harvey Silvergate’s Three Felonies a Day seems to suggest that the government is going to show up with surveillance evidence to incriminate us all.) The title of the article itself (“Internets Sad Legacy: No More Secrets”) certainly appeals to a reader’s nostalgia for the good ole days when a man could commit three felonies a day and not be caught. Bilton appeals to our obsessive need for privacy without suggesting what sort of incriminating things people might actually be doing or saying online. Bilton’s solution to the problem of government surveillance, namely the hope that new technology can be used to fight against current surveillance technology, fails to address the imminent need for government curtailment to prevent them from using the new technologies to increase their surveillance.

More specifically, though, both Wu and Bilton are lacking advice or guidance to their readers. They seem to suggest that being aware of the infringements on privacy is progress enough. Donovan and Deep Lab go one step further, though. Donovan asserts that people shouldn’t simply accept the notion that “we have no privacy, get over it” as the new norm. (Jacob Appelbaum makes this argument even more poignant in Citizenfour by equating contemporary notions of privacy with historical views of liberty and freedom.) Donovan’s explanation of United States v. Jones and Justice Sotomayor’s disagreement with the other justices over citizen consent very clearly illustrates that a reasonable expectation of digital privacy might be a bit too reasonable for the government. I’m also extremely enticed (and unnerved) by the sentiment in the Deep Lab short film that young individuals must make a choice between remaining culturally relevant or being safe and protecting their information. In light of this problem, Wu and Bilton’s awareness of the situation is translated into a productive question: How do we fight this incredible injustice while being open?

So, how do we fight this incredible injustice? Deleting information that is currently online won’t help since the data is already saved in the government facilities in Bluffdale, UT. Could turning off Location Services on my iPhone actually make a difference? Not if my position can still be tracked by service towers. If, like Donovan suggests, consciousness-raising activities can be anti-surveillance practices, what’s the good of being informed if we can’t fight back? To go back to Rachel’s post about Snowden coming out, is our privacy completely dependent on brave individuals who are willing to sacrifice their own freedoms in the United States for our own?

Is it all of our responsibility to ‘come out’ like Snowden?

Some Americans know who Edward Snowden is. Some do not. And even those of us who know about Snowden’s actions–his reveal of classified information to mainstream media about the federal government’s surveillance programs–probably do not understand why he chose to do what he did and how he went about doing it. And this is what makes Citizenfour a powerful documentary—as it provides a platform for Snowden to speak his truth about what motivated his actions and why he believes he is/was responsible to share the government’s surveillance tactics. I do wonder how Snowden feels now, living in Russia (at least temporarily) after the fact.

Here I’ll share several thoughts/questions that came up after during/after watching Citizenfour:

Truth-telling, whistle-blowing, and accountability:

Whose responsibility is it to reveal knowledge/truth(s) about data, technology, and surveillance? And what are these truth(s)? Snowden states that he felt accountable to share what he knew. In fact, at one point in the film he shares: “These are public issues. These are not my issues, they are everyone’s issues.” Are these everyone’s issues? And if so, how do ‘we’ (and who is we) continue to effectively address (or should I say expose) them?

I agree that these are issues that affect everyone–but with two caveats.  First, there is not such thing as a universal ‘everyone’, even if we are solely talking about the US. Issues of public knowledge, surveillance, and even truth-telling manifest in different ways for different people. What can be said/the consequences of truth-telling/what type of knowledge is known in the first place—these and many other ‘circumstances’ depend on one’s race, class, space, sexuality, etc. Would Snowden be Snowden if he wasn’t a white heterosexual male?

Second, I know I take for granted that what I know about data, knowledge, and surveillance (and I far from know all there is to know) –through my coursework, my colleagues, my constructed social media feeds, etc. And often it seems as if everyone ‘should’ know what’s going on. But they don’t.

For me, both of these caveats are attached to several factors–all driven by this form of governmentality (the trope of neoliberalism). Slow death. Structural Racism. Necropolitics. Biopolitics. What all these fancy(ish) and useful academic terms tell me = People don’t know things they don’t know and it’s not because people aren’t interested in knowing; there are factors, decisions, structures in place, etc. that make it difficult for some people to know certain things.

And this leads me to two additional questions:  If not Edward Snowden, then perhaps someone else? Is surveillance reform in the United States inevitable?


Snowden states that he leaked this information “for the good of his country.” What’s interesting is that by doing so Snowden placed not only himself, but also a host of others, at risk. And perhaps all risk isn’t equal. But for Poitras, Greenwald, and others, Snowden’s decision, along with their decision to publicize it, was and still is filled with risk. But does this risk outweigh the risk of not telling?

And how can one prepare for something like this? Snowden makes reference to how he prepared: he set up a system to ensure his rent would be paid, he left his girlfriend a note, he had the documents to pass over to Greenwald, MacAskill, etc.

Coming out:

One statement that really stood out is when Snowden talks to Greenwald (and maybe MacAskill) about revealing his identity. For Snowden, the question is not ‘if’ these journalists will reveal him as their source, but instead ‘when.’ Snowden even states that “it is powerful to come out. I’m not afraid.” And it seems as if more and more people are coming out with information about how corporations and government agencies are transforming our intellectual knowledge and our individual bodies into data–and even how they are using this data.

I was reading a blog about a completely different subject (Bruce Jenner’s primetime interview) where the author, Julia Serano, was talking about Jenner’s (and other trans-identified folks) coming out(s). And I know I’m taking this statement out of context  (and coming out as trans* and coming out as a whistle-blower are very different events with perhaps related, but dissimilar consequences) but I like what Serano wrote:

“Coming out isn’t supposed to be a spectacle. Coming out is when one person tells another person…” (and then this part is specifically about coming out as trans*)

So I want to leave us with this question: Is it all of our responsibility to ‘come out’ (with classified but potentially harmful information) like Snowden?

And does this type of coming out—this coming out in an age of increased surveillance and data bodies, does this type of coming out need to be a spectacle in order to be deemed successful? Or should we all (or at least those of us who are privy to these types of knowledge and I believe this is more of us than we think) come out on an everyday basis?