Cameron Caccamo watched Citizenfour in Canberra with over 20 Members of Parliament.
Last year, Attorney-General George Brandis introduced legislation to Parliament which, if passed, would require telecom companies to retain metadata for two years. Last week, in the 100-seat Parliament House theatre located just next door, politicians and journalists gathered to watch an advance screening of documentary Citizenfour. The film follows whistleblower Edward Snowden as he reveals the extent of the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance program. It is a must-see: a poignant reminder of the dangers posed to individual privacy and security by data collection.
Citizenfour is the pseudonym under which Snowden first contacted director Laura Poitras, in January 2013, offering information about illegal wiretapping practises of the NSA. In July 2013, Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald spent 8 days with Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel room. He handed them a cache of confidential NSA documents, and asked for their assistance sharing the information with the public. Poitras’ documentary, Citizenfour, takes the viewer into that hotel room and beyond.
While the film’s revelations won’t be new to those familiar with the Snowden leaks, Poitras does an excellent job emphasising the extent and potential implications of the surveillance program. In the film Snowden describes how, working as an NSA contractor, he could access a live feed from any drone around the world and watch as missile strikes were carried out. He also explains how different data could be linked – for example, credit card data could be connected with the data from public transport cards like the Opal system – to give data contractors like Snowden information on where you went, how you spent your day, even who you are likely to be close to based off data patterns.
The documentary also offers a terrifying insight into how the legal and political system has failed to prevent the huge growth of spying networks. In particular, Snowden’s pro bono legal team explains that the US government charged Snowden under the Espionage Act – a hundred-year old World War One relic that does not make allowances for public interest disclosure or Government overreach whistleblowing, effectively leaving Snowden with no available defence to the charges.
Citizenfour’s release comes as the Australian Government debates introducing a possible data retention policy. Over the past few weeks, the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties, in conjunction with its national, Victorian, Queensland, and South Australian counterparts, have hosted pre-release screenings of CitizenFour to raise awareness of the issue. Theatres sold out in Melbourne and Sydney, with the last of these in Parliament itself and marketed directly to MPs.
With the help of anti-data retention campaigner WA Greens Senator Scott Ludlam, the Parliament House Theatre was booked out and politicians across the spectrum invited. Dr Lesley Lynch, Secretary of the NSWCCL, said in a statement that it was possible that Parliamentarians were “not likely to fully understand the technology detail”, something that the film ought to rectify.
The result was positive, with almost twenty MPs and many of their staff attending. All but one of the Federal Greens contingent were present, while there was also a good show from Labor – Terri Butler, Laurie Ferguson, Melissa Parke, Graham Perrett and Tim Watts all attended, while others sent members of staff in their stead. Perhaps just as important were the crossbench Senators present, with David Leyonhjelm and Ricky Muir also at the Canberra screening. Both Attorney General (and architect of the proposed data retention policy) George Brandis and Prime Minister Tony Abbott declined their invitations.
This is unfortunate. With Citizenfour, Poitras has done an excellent job of simplifying the complex issue of data retention. Even those who seem to have trouble grasping the definition of metadata, such as George Brandis should be able to follow along.