Edward Snowden's lessons for a secure Australia


Citizenfour (M). Director: Laura Poitras. Starring: Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, William Binney, Ewen MacAskill. 114 minutes

This is not just a documentary. It is history in the making. The revelations made by Edward Snowden in Citizenfour, about the extent to which ordinary American and British citizens' privacy had been invaded by the data-mining activities of their own governments, is part of the public record. Laura Poitras' Oscar-winning documentary is as much a portrait of the process that led to the historical revelations, and of the manner and motivations of the whistleblower, as it is a record of their content.

Documentarian Poitras and The Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald were handpicked by Snowden to be the mediators of his revelations, due to their work exposing government abuses of civil liberties in post-9/11 America. They met with him in a Hong Kong hotel in early 2013, coaxed by a series of encrypted emails from an individual who identified himself as citizenfour. The early part of the film uses the content of these email exchanges to mount considerable suspense in the lead-up to the first meeting. Citizenfour is every inch a real-life spy thriller.

When they, and we, finally meet him, Snowden proves to be both passionate and highly articulate. He is a systems analyst working at the National Security Agency, who wants nothing less noble than to see the delineation between those with power and the people over whom they wield it redrawn, to reflect the rightful distinction between elected and electors, rather than rulers and the ruled. In this, he is far from gung-ho; he is loath to let his own biases dictate the release of the information, and so he puts his trust in the journalistic process, and in the ethical allies he has identified in his chosen gatekeepers.

Poitras' camera captures in real-time Snowden's rivetting revelations, his strategising with Greenwald as to how and when the information is to be disseminated, and his reactions, as the stories that he has initiated begin to filter into the public domain. This is a compelling insight into the journalistic process, from the inception of the story to its development, publication, and public reaction to it. Snowden wants the revelation of his identity to be carefully controlled; the media is too personality-driven, he believes, and he wants as much as possible for the content of his revelations, and not himself, to be the story.

In this Snowden is both heroic and humble. That he will eventually be exposed is inevitable, and thus he insists that he must before too long become part of the story being meted out by Greenwald. Stepping forward and claiming responsibility for the leaks is the only way to protect others who might otherwise be implicated by association, but also he wants to be seen to have the courage of his convictions, rather than skulking in secrecy, except to the extent that it is efficacious to do so. He wants to own the stand that he is taking, so that others might be emboldened by his boldness. It is hard not to admire him.

The stakes are high; the need for caution absolute if the leaks are not to be prematurely interrupted. Snowden chastises someone for leaving an SD card in their laptop, and for having too brief a password. He works under the seclusion of a jacket draped tent-like over his head; Greenwald seems to stifle a smile. Moments later the hotel's fire alarm sounds. Its truncated chiming plunges Snowden into nervous silence. Then it sounds again. The alarm turns out to be innocuous — no more than a routine test — but the incident is illuminating: Snowden's paranoia is almost funny, except for the fact that it isn't.

The film's third and final act charts the beginnings of the international response to the Snowden revelations, as President Obama scuffles to ameliorate his administration's actions, and people begin to open their eyes to the price they have paid in the name of security. This, really, is the meat of the matter: not the revelations themselves, but how in their light governments and societies desiring security will move to decide just how much freedom they are willing to surrender in order to acquire it. As the debate about data retention laws rages in Australia, Citizenfour is compulsory viewing.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, citizenfour, Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, William Binney, Ewen MacAskill



submit a comment

Existing comments

(Snowden).."wants nothing less noble than to see the delineation between those with power and the people over whom they wield it redrawn", ... Those with power rarely relinquish it readily. We have come a long way from the time when kings could dispose of a dissenter by ordering, 'Off with his head.' With a more educated public, there is less need or ability for rulers to push their private solutions to perceived problems, but they try to control populations by withholding information or by distorting facts with spin, and by appealing to the baser instincts of less enlightened voters. Evidence of greed for power needs to be sought and exposed before it becomes entrenched.

Robert Liddy | 26 February 2015  

I don't believe Snowden's initial motivations were as articulately altruistic as described here when he first started leaking security documents. I get the feeling that it's only in hindsight, after seeing the effects of the published leaks, that he's developed an ethos and justification for what he did. He probably started getting the sense, like many of us, that the new technology allowing a 24 hour news cycle has actually led to a decrease in transparency from governments. Secrecy from politicians is nothing new, but the way our leaders respond to questions from journalists is becoming a joke. When presented with specific questions, most politicians merely repeating slogans or generic policy positions to avoid controversy and fill in time during the interview. It seems only retired politicians are prepared to speak frankly in the way that's needed to solve our country's problems. We need more politicians like Malcolm Turnbull prepared to show some integrity and courage and speak their mind regardless of the consequences.

AURELIUS | 27 February 2015  

Similar Articles

The case for defending children and their advocates

  • Gillian Bouras
  • 25 February 2015

Children have always suffered and been exploited. Only recently have been regarded as being children at all, rather than mini-people. Reformers like Dickens raised consciousness beginning in the 19th century. Bombs are raining on children in Syria and elsewhere. Not so Australia, but many are being damaged nonetheless. The Australian Human Rights Commission is having to defend its report on Immigration Detention from critics that include the Prime Minister.


Negotiating climate deniers and plovers

  • Brian Matthews
  • 27 February 2015

Call me paranoid if you like, but as I walked away, affecting a nonchalant strolling gait, I knew, I just knew, that she was a climate change denier and was daring me to argue the point. Had I hesitated one more moment, I would have been regaled with statistics about the mild coastal summer and other utterly benign climatological phenomena.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up