Laura Poitras opens up on Snowden

The link to this story (‘Facebook is a gift to intelligence agencies’) is misleading. You would think that the article would be largely about Facebook and its relation to government spy agencies. In actuality the interview with filmmaker/journalist Laura Poitras makes only a glancing reference to Facebook. But the interview is revealing about aspects of the Edward Snowden saga, and therefore is worth a read.

By now, if you are not somewhat familiar with the Edward Snowden story you probably have been in a cave or under a rock or something. We all know that in June 2013, whistleblower Snowden rocked the world with his disclosures of nefarious NSA snooping on governments and individuals around the globe.

Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, then of the Guardian, broke the story in June of last year. Subsequently, Poitras, an accomplished film journalist, made Citizenfour (Snowden’s email handle in the email he sent to the Guardian was that) about the episode and revealing new information and showing another side of Snowden. She has in the pasts been nominated for an Academy Award for the documentary on the heels of a Pulitzer Prize.

But in this far-ranging interview we learn more background information and that the affair actually began in January 2013 when she and Greenwald received Snowden’s email detailing the US government’s surveillance activities. We learn that Poitras was already involved in doing a film about government surveillance in a post-9/11 world. Snowden’s bombshell soon changed her focus- and her life. It became the focus of her filming and her energy and led to the shoot in Hong Kong over 8 days with Edward Snowden before he fled to begin his initial stint of 40 days in a Moscow airport.

From Poitras we learn that Edward Snowden did not want notoriety; he didn’t want to be the focus of the story. But to be sure, the story is unmistakeably about him and the choices he made. And while he tried to escape the spotlight, it is clear that he wished to be recognized as the source of the leaks and had in fact written a manifesto chronicling the details. We are also made aware that Snowden was ready for martyrdom for his actions and that he agreed to be filmed because he was apprised that, once he went public with the leaks, he would be a focal point of worldwide reporting.

Poitras agrees to some extent that additional revelations by Snowden and others have lost some of their appeal, and is sanguine at the prospect, opining that it is normal and cyclical. The whole scenario seems to become topical anytime there is news reported about a government agency’s surveillance abuses or industry battles with the same agencies over things like encryption. She laments, though, that public opinion hasn’t translated into public policy- that more hasn’t happened in the public policy arena.

The interview covered her feelings on the fact that both governments and corporations engage in surveillance- they both track people online, as do cybercriminals. Poitras’ take is that governments are the scariest because they possess the most power- to investigate, prosecute and incarcerate, often with impunity. Even so, she worries that too many companies are too cozy with, too accommodating of the government. Also when they collect all the information which they do, they are enabling government surveillance by creating repositories of information.

It is at this point that she pronounces that Facebook is a gift to intelligence agencies as people willingly volunteer information in copious amounts allowing the spy agencies access to a trove of information. To combat this and other abuses companies will need to develop countermeasure, tools, which will be more user friendly. Along these lines she mentions encryption and PGP and how a favorite organization with whom she’s affiliated, the Freedom of the Press Foundation, is championing encryption and genuine security tools. Consequences of the Snowden revelations are continuing to surface and evolve. Public opinion will foster reining-in of government agencies and promote self-funding for things like the Tor project and TAILS. And, of course, the promise of more whistleblowers in the Snowden mold is in the offing.

Stan Ward has enjoyed writing for 50 years. Writing has been a comfortable companion to a successful business and teaching career for him. Find him on Google+.

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