CITIZENFOUR: Snooping and security

October 31, 2014

By Max Hallam

On Wednesday 29 October, the Frontline Club held a special preview screening of documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras’s new film CITIZENFOUR ahead of its UK cinematic release on Friday 31 October.

Laura Poitras

While working on a documentary trilogy about post 9/11 America, Poitras began to receive encrypted emails from a subject known only as ‘Citizen Four’. This citizen claimed to be ready to blow the whistle on a global intelligence effort involving private information and communications of regular people. Poitras and confidant Glenn Greenwald flew to Kong Kong on Citizen Four’s instructions, where they would dissect the information he had to give them. It was here that Citizen Four revealed himself as the man we now know as Edward Snowden.

The film recounts the next eight days of interviews between Snowden, Greenwald and other investigative journalists. Poitras takes us through the day-by-day process of interviewing Snowden, making sense of the documents, writing the stories, and then eventually releasing them to the world. CITIZENFOUR puts to its audience clips from other experts such as Bill Finney, shedding light onto one of the most debated and controversial topics of the 21st century.

Poitras joined via Skype from Germany, where she had just received the Leipziger Ring Award, at the Dok Leipzig Film Festival.

The first question addressed the style of the film, which one audience member characterised as ‘dressed down’. She wondered what her approach had been while editing the film. Poitras responded she “wanted it to unfold chronologically”. This would give the audience an idea of how the actual events unfolded, leaving them with the feeling they were actually present in the room.

Next, Poitras was asked how the film had effected how she communicates with people everyday and whether, as Greenwald joked, Snowden’s fear of snooping had rubbed off on her.

Poitras explained that even before she started this project she used encrypted messages and had only recently started using Skype for Q&As such as tonight’s, but had never felt it was secure as a means of communication.

When asked whether the film was able to attract a wider audience, Poitras said that it was more to do with a “shift in consciousness” and that it was the nature of the information that Snowden leaked that was attracting the attention.

Another question queried why Poitras thought the large telecoms and internet companies implicated in the scandal were willing to work with the US and other governments.

Poitras alluded to companies such as Twitter who did resist pressure from the US government to give them access to their user databases and then at the other end of the spectrum there is Microsoft who gave the NSA warning about encryptions and security changes ahead of them taking place so that the NSA could get a head start. Poitras’s main reason as to why she thought these companies were so compliant was the US government persuasion factor, sending National Security letters to these companies under legislation such as the PATRIOT Act and the PRISM program.

To find out more about the tools of encryption that were used in the making of the film, read this article.

CITIZENFOUR will be released in cinemas across the UK on Friday 31 October. Find our more screenings dates here.



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