THE THEATRICS OF PRIVACY IN AN AGE OF SURVEILLANCE :
Simran Keshwani is an India based author currently pursuing her Masters research in Sydney, Australia. Her literary career has been based on exploring the question of spaces – personal, private, public, closed, open, empty, hollow and full and how they interact viz-a-viz the performances of being in the 21st Century. Her first book, Becoming Assiya, explores the same questions from the perspective of a migrant.
History will recognize director Oliver Stone as one of the most important cinematic historians when it comes to the stories of his country, from Vietnam to Richard Nixon to 9/11. (Tallerico,2016)
Oliver Stone’s “Snowden” (2016) is a crisp portrait of the world’s most celebrated whistle-blower. Reversing the usual pattern, it could be described as a fictional “making of” feature about “Citizenfour,” Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning documentary on the former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden. (Tallerico, 2016).
With early stages of globalisation and the convergence of a shared global identity, what was previously a monologue had transformed into a dialogue – a form of communication where sensory input and information flow and reception worked both ways.
In our present day post-dialogue world, millions of conversations and exchanged erupt
around the world in an iota of a second. The information we relay across the web – including our innermost desires and feelings is binary and therefore, can be accessed, making individual identity a thin smoke screen.
This analysis of the movie Snowden which was released in 2016 and is inspired by real life events plots the concept of personal identity in relation to questions of liberty, privacy, security and power.
Snowden as a movie deploys the technique of flashbacks for its runtime of 2hours and 14 minutes. This aids the audience in analysing the character in his entirety. The exposure into Snowden’s past equips one with adequate socio-political and historical background to relate the coordinates of the movie with the temporal realities of the time. The structure of the movie skillfully explores the fissures in personal, professional and national identity of the protagonist. The opening scene places one directly at the center of all the tension, inside Snowden’s hotel room at The Mira in Hong Kong where he sits down with journalists, exposing the biggest nexus of government lies and propaganda in contemporary history. In terms of semiotics, it is significant to notice the aura of secrecy maintained throughout the movie. Strips covering webcams, mobile phones kept in the microwave and Snowden’s aversion to cameras are some examples. The use of the rubik’s cube as an important symbol is central to understanding Snowden’s story. The movie, based on true events explores the protagonist’s inner conflicts which he is constantly confronted with.
The movie succeeds in rousing strong Nationalist sentiments in the audience right from the opening scenes. In a glimpse of Snowden’s past, we are taken to his military training days for the Special Forces, one hears the troops singing “Went from driving Cadillacs, to driving convoys in Iraq” in unison, thus invoking images of American patriotism. Furthermore, Snowden’s senior at the training asks him to “rip (his) heart out” to be able to serve the country. The significance of this scene is that it provides the audience vantage points to traverse through the narrative. National Identity as a concept is associated strongly with militarism and safeguarding National Interests (Klobuszewska, 2018). After breaking his leg, Snowden is shown at a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) recruitment interview where he meets Senior Instructor Corbin O’ Brian.
Corbin O’Brian: “You wanted to be special forces.”
Edward Snowden: “Yes, sir”
Corbin O’Brian: “Why do you want to join the CIA?”
Edward Snowden: “I’d like to help my country make a difference in the world.”
Snowden’s guiding ethos is that he wants to be of use to his nation. One question of symbolic importance remains ‘Do you believe the USA is the greatest country in the world?’ on the polygraph. This question largely defines the ethical dilemmas of the character. He starts out with a definitive yes to the question but as the narrative unfolds, he turns more and more skeptical due to the ugly truths about the nature of his work that lie exposed.
During the training period, Brian asserts “Bombs will not stop terrorism, brains will” which plots the story in relation to questions of soft power and the role of the US government in maintaining global hegemony in world of the web.
For a major part of the film, Snowden’s personal life has been covered with great finesse. His relationship with photographer Lindsay Mills makes him question his Manichean view of his commitment to national interests and the government. Right after they meet, they cross a site of protest with citizens holding posters that read ‘Drop Bush Not Bombs!’ responding to the aftermath of 9/11 and the regime’s War on Terror. While Lindsay signs the petition to stop bombing, Edward lets it pass. “I just don’t really like bashing my country.” is what he tells her, after which she says, “It is my country too and right now, it has blood on its hands.”
Snowden’s moment of truth arrives when he is sent on a mission to Geneva, Switzerland in 2007. He gains access to XKEYSCORE and PRISM, software which enable him to spy on anybody, anywhere in the world without obtaining a legitimate Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court order as he had been instructed during his CIA training. He quickly learns the tricks and loopholes of his trade and realises that top government officials are at complete liberty to flout the laws in the name of ‘national security’. To confront any questions of personal identity in the 21st Century one must keenly look at the epistemological fractures in our understanding of privacy and how the flow of information has still not been decolonised. Cases of non-consensual pornography showing up on the internet brings to the forefront the horrific realisation of being under a watchful radar, every second that we live. From what’s on our tables to what goes on inside our bedrooms, the schism between the public and the private has been violently amalgamated, which is a shocking discovery for Snowden.
Since power dynamics across the world have undergone immense change since the birth of a New World Order, our conception of power has also considerably shifter from a purely material, militaristic understanding and show of strength to Soft Power which hitherto introduces concepts like a complete reification and liquidation of an individual into a binary digit or a piece of data. With databases of these irreducible details, global hegemons can technologically create a proscenium of everything – from influencing and manipulating our desires to selling us things we do not need to influence our ideologies and access to pedagogy based on the behavioural choices we inhibit every time we enter the world of binary digits. The movie talks about the existence of US networks in Japan and friendly countries like Belgium, Brazil, Germany – which do not pose a direct threat to US interests. This is when he realises that “Terrorism is the excuse. This is about economic and social control. And the only thing you’re really protecting is the supremacy of your government.”
Snowden quickly grasps the meta scale of data mining when he is supposed to find links to ‘dirty Saudi money’. He befriends a Pakistani banker and spies on his connections to find out that his daughter is dating an illegal immigrant who is soon deported. What ensues is life risking for the girl and the nonchalance with which Snowden’s senior addresses this makes him question the nature of his work.
Snowden: “And if his daughter had died?”
Undercover CIA Agent: “We could’ve used that too.”
Snowden: “Are you serious? What, in the name of a promotion?”
There are snippets of Obama’s campaign scattered across the movie. Snowden believes with a change of government, things might get better, however he admits he was wrong. A key scene to understanding Snowden’s breakdown is when he makes love to Lindsay. During his most intimate moments, he cannot help but think about himself as a subject of surveillance as well. He watches his webcam with horror. Furthermore, when he has an argument with Lindsay in Japan, the screenplay zooms out creating the effect of a “recording”. The message of the movie becomes clear then – No matter who you are, you are being watched! This further problematises his relationship as he is bound by non-disclosure agreements with the government and cannot explain his internal dilemmas to Lindsay.
There is a brief point in the movie where Snowden quits his job and moves to Maryland to lead a ‘happy’ life with his girlfriend. His belief that he’d be able to start anew is soon shattered when he hears about three NSA agents who had their homes raided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation simply because they had filed legal complaints for abuse of powers and overreach by the officials working in cybersecurity for the United States government. The words “Do not tell truth to power, we’ll hammer you.” echo deep inside his head which makes him realise that the State machinery cannot be defeated or exposed easily.
The movie accurately establishes connect and sequence between the chronology of the scenes. Right after this he meets Brian who tells him “Most Americans do not want Freedom. They want security.” which prompts Snowden to think that ordinary people did not make that choice for themselves and are not aware of the being under the radar of a global spying machine. As he questions the idea of freedom of choice, basic civil liberties and Rights being compromised, Brian, who comes across as a malicious and shrewd government official offers him a post in Hawaii which he says, would enable Snowden to get ‘on top of his career’. Unable to decide what to choose between duty and ethic, Snowden’s disenfranchisement becomes visible when he suffers a paralytic attack. However, he still moves to Hawaii with Lindsay.
The relationship between Lindsay and Edward is the key to the film, since it establishes what is at stake for the hero as he faces the conflicting demands of love and duty. It also affirms that he is a nice, normal, humble guy, neither a zealot nor an egomaniac. (Scott, 2016)
What leads to the climax of the movie is Lindsay’s birthday. Snowden’s colleagues from the CIA talk about US air strikes where children were targeted and how watching visuals where “they are gone in a cloud of dust” are a part of the job and have become routine so much so that the colleagues laugh while recounting these encounters. Snowden discusses about the criminal nature of jobs and how ordinary people following orders sometimes have wider social ramifications. He mentions the Nazi regime wherein normal people went about carrying legal orders, which resulted in the Holocaust. The Nuremberg Trials find mention in this conversation where these ‘normal people’ were tried. By the time we reach this scene, the audience can affirm that Snowden’s beliefs that the system is unjust have concretised. This is a teeth-gripping moment, as the audience will finally know how he managed to ‘steal’ such vast amounts of classified data from one of the most heavily protected sites in the world. He suffers another paralytic attack here and is now set to do the right thing to lay his internal chaos to an end.
“The kid did it!” is what Forrester, Snowden’s teacher at the CIA training exclaims when his ‘data leaks’ are made public, leading to a public uproar. The scene at the end echoes the complete opposite sentiment of Snowden’s stance on questioning the government at the beginning.
After he is done filming the documentary, he passes on the Rubik’s cube to Laura, the journalist responsible for fair reporting of his story. This scene is symbolic as it shows that the conflict at the heart of the protagonist has finally been solved. Even though the US government charges him with theft and espionage, he regains a sense of identity once he fulfils his moral duty. Staying true to his ethical obligations, he deletes all the data he has from his drive after passing it on to senior journalists from The Guardian.
The US government is rattled, and the movie shows Obama addressing Snowden as a ‘hacker’ and constantly justifying the use of spyware by the government. However, the truth is out in plain sight and due to mass protests and worldwide media coverage, Snowden escapes.
“We will not be silenced. I lost a stable life but gained a new one.” is his final message as an asylum seeker in Moscow, ‘live from the internet’ on a talk show.
The ending credits of the movie spin around montages of news clippings that detail the aftermath of the Snowden leaks, the Obama administration regulating data mining and real life candids of Snowden and Lindsay. One is confronted with the fact that people who take up strong moral positions and tell truth to power are ordinary people, just like us, who withstand extraordinary risks and put their lives on the line for the greater good. Snowden is not just a movie, it is a cinematic experience that defines the heroes of our age.
The movie leaves the onlooker with a realisation that complete technological neurosis defines the character of our age, with our lives and their most perfunctory details available on a screen. The paramount question to pose here is how do we ensure what’s private remains private? From the ambit of the workplace to the bathroom, technology has made lives modern and easier but has also strategically placed us under a panopticon (Foucault, 1977). We’re constantly being watched, analysed and recorded which causes a subsequent breakdown in personal identity.
Time and again there have been whistle blowers and potent research that has shown that users are indeed concerned about their privacy within the Social Web, but do not apply these concerns to their usage behaviour. This is known as the ‘privacy paradox’ (Barnes, 2006). Therefore, to understand the cracks in personal identity, we as active agents need to confront this paradox.
Snowden. (2016). [DVD] Directed by O. Stone. Hollywood.
Tallerico, B. (2016). Snowden Movie Review & Film Summary (2016) | Roger Ebert. [online] Rogerebert.com. Available at: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/snowden-2016 [Accessed 27 Apr. 2018].
Scott, A. (2016). Review: ‘Snowden,’ Oliver Stone’s Restrained Portrait of a Whistle-Blower. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/16/movies/snowden-review-oliver-stone-joseph-gordon-levitt.html [Accessed 27 Apr. 2018].
Klobuszewska, U. (2018). The Creation of a National Identity through Militarization – Urban Labs. [online] Urbanlabsce.eu. Available at: http://urbanlabsce.eu/982-2/ [Accessed 1 May 2018].
Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish. New York: Pantheon Books.
Barnes, S. (2006). A privacy paradox: Social networking in the United States. [online] Journals.uic.edu. Available at: http://journals.uic.edu/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/1394/1312 [Accessed 1 May 2018].