Live Local, Live Small: Cinematique’s presentation of “Citizenfour” calls attention to privacy concerns
“Yeah, but I don’t look at anything wrong.”
“That’s not a decision you get to make. That value judgment isn’t yours; it’s someone else’s.”
This is a paraphrase of a reoccurring discussion I have with people about the dangers of Kindles and the like: Creating a browsing history of what you read, watch and search is giving someone access to make value judgments about you and to potentially use that information as evidence against you. George Orwell was only slightly wrong: We aren’t being forced to have government mandated screens in our lives to monitor us; on the contrary, we are paying lots of money for the privilege of letting that happen.
I process information better in a written form, though the opportunity to explore an issue in depth the way a documentary film can (and should) fascinates me. I find the persistent, largely empty, talking-head chatter that pervades 24-hour television news gives me a headache and only deepens my disappointment in myth of an educated populace.
“Citzenfour” came to Cinematique at Thalian Hall last week. The documentary by Laura Poitras chronicles the unfolding of Edward Snowden’s revelations of wide-spread U.S. government surveillance.
Poitras filmed almost constantly during the eight days she and Glenn Greenwald met with Edward Snowden in Hong Kong. It was throughout the time leading up to the breaking news story of what exactly he had done. To watch him as it unfolded and hear his own words seemed a not-to-be-missed opportunity. I certainly spent a lot of time wondering about and speculating on the inner life of the man who had taken this drastic step. It’s an opportunity to be a fly on the wall of a truly surprising and game-changing event in current time.
I followed the story when it was breaking with a certain amount of trepidation about the extent of the information and what it really meant for day-to-day life in the modern world. As a self-professed Luddite, it did feel like it confirmed some of my deepest fears and also hinted that perhaps I wasn’t paranoid enough. (Jock would guffaw here and say it is not possible that I am not paranoid enough….)
The film fascinates. As far as putting more information into the discussion about privacy, freedom and the unintended consequences of the world we have created, it does succeed in provoking discussion. One piece that has come up reputedly in conversations is about an Occupy Wall Street training meeting and the attendees responding to questions as to whether they’ve had their retinas scanned or their phones taken away from them and searched. I remember questions similar to that from the first time I attended a civil-disobedience training. This was prior to the era of cell phones; I was shocked at the severity of this all because private citizens were publically but non-violently expressing their disagreement with policy. Sixteen years later, that’s not quite a shocking idea; I guess I have become jaded in my old age. If this is the first time you encounter that reality—which is calmly and quietly depicted in the film—then it certainly makes an impression.
So what can private citizens do? That’s another question that kept coming up. Is there anything we really do to prevent this level of surveillance that has permeated our lives? In a commentary on WHQR last year I asked: “We talk about valuing privacy, but our actions speak louder than our words. In America we value things we spend money on. Since the NSA revelations, have you changed your personal habits any? Do you read fewer newspapers online and instead opt for the privacy of reading a hard copy that doesn’t leave a trail? Do you email less and connect face-to-face more? Or has your spending on personal technology stayed the same or increased?”
Now, I am not saying that I don’t read a newspaper online or that I haven’t bought anything over the internet. I finally broke down and got an online subscription to StarNews because my writing work frequently requires me to go back and check dates, facts and figures that appear in their archives. Though I will go to pretty incredible lengths to purchase locally and at a small business, my year of exclusive local-only shopping is over, and I have purchased things online in the last few years: most notably, two pairs of shoes handmade by a nice family in California and since the VW’s have appeared in my life, parts for their restorations.
As well, there are issues around travel, which are many and frustrating. You cannot buy a plane ticket with cash in person anymore. It is almost impossible to do that in the U.S. You cannot rent a car without a credit card. There are motels that will accept cash and take walk ups, but for the most part, if you make a reservation in advance for lodging in the US, you need a credit card. This includes camping sites; most advance registrations require credit cards.
“It’s enough to make you want to get in your VW and drive off into the sunset…” I mused.
“How is that different than driving up the highway and using your credit card to buy gas? Haven’t you just left a nice trail that’s easy to follow?” Jock asked.
“Yes, if you don’t pay with cash, I guess.”
In “Citzenfour” one of the points made about surveillance is that if your Metro Card links to your bank account then the geographic map of your movements (street corners, times, days, etc.) can be added to the biography of what you’ve bought, read, and seen. That’s all information we are willingly giving up. We aren’t even making it difficult to discover.
Cash and real people: It comes back to those two key things. Pay with cash, in person, and at a real place. That’s pretty much the only defense to maintain privacy.
The commentary I wrote for WHQR last year was about Burma and George Orwell in the age of Edward Snowden. If “We The People” still have the power to call for our own freedom, perhaps we should not just call for it but act for it. Ask yourself if you can pay cash in person for your next purchase, if it means you can carve out a little more privacy and freedom for your part of the world.
“We are lucky to live in a distraction-driven culture that allows us to forget and to indulge. But people who are drawn to governing, the world over, are inherently scared and distrustful [people] who play with human lives like they play games. Spy networks have existed to spy on a rulers’ own people, as long as we have had rulers. Our excitement about the new toys has made it so much easier for them. But we don’t have to. Orwell would be so disappointed in us and how easily we have bought into the double speak. Social networks? Really? There is more truth in the statement “war is peace.” But more than that, the citizens of Burma should be really disappointed that we had all the advantages of freedom of speech and the ability to share information, and we didn’t see the obvious in front of us. Don’t just read Orwell and shake your head; please, read Orwell and examine the double speak in our own culture. “’War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength, Facebook is friendship…’”