The End of Privacy Is Near
“CITIZENFOUR” is a documentary about U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden. It came out in 2014, but it’s even more pertinent today than it was then, so if you haven’t seen it, I urge you to do so.
The Snowden story began in January 2013, when documentary film director/producer Laura Poitras received an encrypted email from a stranger who called himself “Citizen Four.” Snowden reportedly chose this codename “as a nod to three NSA whistleblowers who came before him: Bill Binney, J. Kirk Wiebe and Thomas Drake.”
Poitras had already spent several years working on a film about monitoring programs in the U.S., and had been placed on a secret watch list after her 2006 film “My Country, My Country,”1 a documentary about Iraqis living under U.S. occupation. In his initial email, Snowden wrote:
“Laura. At this stage, I can offer nothing more than my word. I’m a senior government employee in the intelligence community. I hope you understand that contacting you is extremely high risk and you’re willing to agree to the following precautions before I share more. This will not be a waste of your time …
The surveillance you’ve experienced means you’ve been ‘selected’ — a term which will mean more to you as you learn about how the modern SIGINT system works.
For now, know that every border you cross, every purchase you make, every call you dial, every cell phone tower you pass, friend you keep, article you write, site you visit, subject line you type, and packet your route, is in the hands of a system whose reach is unlimited, but whose safeguards are not.
Your victimization by the NSA system means that you’re well aware of the threat that unrestricted secret police pose for democracies. This is a story few but you can tell.”
Summary of Snowden’s Journey
In June 2013, Poitras flew to meet Snowden at The Mira Hong Kong, together with columnist Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, an intelligence reporter for The Guardian. After four days of interviews, Snowden’s identity was made public at his request.
Within two weeks, the U.S. government demanded Snowden’s extradition. Facing prosecution in the United States, Snowden scheduled a meeting with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and applied for refugee status.
He managed to depart Hong Kong, but became stranded at the Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow when his passport was canceled. There he remained for 40 days, until the Russian government finally granted him asylum.
The Greatest Weapon of Oppression Ever Built
The U.S. government implemented Stellar Wind, a program to actively — and illegally — spy on all Americans within days of the 2001 9/11 attack. Ten years later, in 2011, construction began on a NSA data center in the Utah desert. It’s now the largest surveillance storehouse in the U.S.
In his correspondence, Snowden warned Poitras that “telecommunication companies in the U.S. are betraying the trust of their customers.” Through Stellar Wind, all phone calls and text messages were being intercepted and stored, and the Stellar Wind program has only expanded from there.
The NSA not only intercepts American citizens emails, phone conversations and text messages, but also Google searches, Amazon.com orders, bank records and more.
“We are building the greatest weapon for oppression in the history of man,” Snowden wrote, “yet its directors exempt themselves from accountability … On cyber operations, the government’s public position is that we still lack a policy framework. This … was a lie.
There is a detailed policy framework, a kind of martial law for cyber operations created by the White House. It’s called ‘Presidential Policy Directive 20’ and was finalized at the end of last year.”
Linkability, the Key to Control — and Entrapment
As explained in the film, a key aspect of control through surveillance is the linkability of data. One piece of data about you is linked to another piece. For example, your bus pass can be linked to the debit card you used to buy the pass. Your debit card is also linked to all other purchases.
With two key pieces of information — WHERE you went on a given day, and WHEN you made purchases, they can determine who you spoke with and met up with by linking those data points with those of other people who were in the vicinity at the same time. And that’s without even using your cellphone data.
When all these various data points are aggregated — location data, purchases, phone calls, texts, social media posts and more — you end up with a collection of metadata that tells a story about you. However, while the story is made up of facts, it’s not nece
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