Sunday, November 09, 2014

Citizenfour and The Berlin Wall

Today is the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, one of the great moments of the 20th century, and one of the few important events of the 20th century that is altogether good. It is the symbol of a heady time - the end of the iron curtain, the undoing of Communism throughout Europe, a moment that looked like it might usher in a period of freedom for much of the world. It did, for a good part of Europe - but not completely. The Balkans disintegrated in the wake of the end of Communist rule - Yugoslavia in particular dissolved and turned into a war zone. Things didn't go smoothly in the Soviet Union itself - the coup in 1991 basically put an end to it. The coup was defeated, but the winners were the Republics, including Russia itself, and Boris Yeltsin. Years of chaos and gangsterism have led to Vladimir Putin, and a return to the bad old days of Russian oppression at home, and troublemaking abroad. Maybe nothing really like Brezhnev's days, but not what we might have hoped we'd see after 1989. And the US? That idiot Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and dragged us directly into middle eastern wars, and we have not been able to get out since. Those troubles have poisoned us - with our involvement in the middle east bringing terrorism to the US, and 9/11 serving as a pretense for massive expansion of government surveillance and the undermining of civil rights.

I saw Citizenfour today. I imagine that explains the gloominess of this post. t's the story of Edward Snowden, built around a long series of interviews with Snowden in Hong Kong, just before he revealed his name, though that is just the centerpiece of the film. It's about the massive government surveillance programs that have appeared in the wake of 9/11 - their continued growth - and the government's reaction to the exposure of these programs. It's a gripping tale - and a very distressing tale. I suppose there is nothing new in the film - all this information has been available for the last year or so. It's been widely discussed. It doesn't matter in the least, does it? nothing has changed; there is almost nothing any individual can do to get around all this data collection; there is no sign of a concerted political will to do anything about it. It is as if everything that happened with Snowden was swallowed by the sea of information, that kept rolling on. And he became nothing more than another vaguely recognizable face and name, a weird international celebrity, famous for being famous.

Isn't it? Seeing it today - it raises the unpleasant thought that maybe the fall of the Berlin Wall don't so much let freedom into East Germany, as it let the Stasi out. Which is not to say that the USA is like East Germany, the NSA is like the Stasi to the KGB - but they could be. And the film concentrates on government abuses, government programs and data - but it doesn't take a very big leap to realize that the government is just one agent in all this. Several people talk about the relationship between the government and other entities - internet and phone providers, content and service providers (the Facebooks and Googles of the world), device manufacturers (apple and company), banks, subway systems, stores - you name it. And you can worry about what AT&T or Facebook or Apple or Visa or Target give to the NSA - but you might also give a thought for what all those entities do with the data themselves. What they give to each other. What the government can give to them. We walk in a cloud of data that we can't hide, and who knows who can get inside it? And what they might do with it?

I don't mean here that the NSA (or Facebook) is the Stasi - they aren't killing people, or, not a lot of people (wonderful caveat that, huh?) But they have the ability to be the Stasi. What stops them? Their goodwill? well - one problem with people like Snowden that I noticed at times in this film is that the act as though there is something new about government surveillance government overstep, and so on. Maybe we should remember the Stasi; and maybe we should remember how our government acted for much for the cold war. It is probably true the government has more information now than it had in the 60s - but that didn't stop them from spying on Martin Luther King or John Lennon or whoever you want. I think - that while what Snowden talks about is terrifying, and while all this cloud of data we can never get out of, and is increasingly vulnerable to use and abuse by entities of all sorts around us - all that is true, all that is terrifying - but all that is still not where the battle has to be won and lost. Why aren't we like the Stasi? we aren't using this information to crush dissent, to impose a constant oppression on the population. And why? Because the government is full of nice guys, honest and honorable and trustworthy to a fault? You answer that....

But what is relevant is it is all political. In this country, the government comes from the people - it is, still, in however imperfect a way, an elected government for the people by the people and all that. I think - you can't rely on the good will of government: but you have to rely on the political engagement of the people. It's hard to muster much optimism - but I think this is the only thing we have and probably the only thing we have ever had: to vote; to speak; to act, politically. I think, even if the NSA and company continue to do what they have been doing - even if the government still trots out the specter of terrorism to scare people into accepting these programs - even if the public, as a whole, doesn't care all that much about the possibly inconvenience of someone reading Jihadist websites somewhere - or even about all the other people who had to get new credit cards after Target got breached (and what the government can do to everyone, criminals and hackers can do to a good number of people - they can get that data to).... Even with all that bad news, what people like Snowden did, or Glenn Greenwald and Jacob Applebaum and Laura Poitras do, is crucial. Stories like this, films like this, keep a wedge in there, an awareness of the presence of all this data, and the degree to which we depend on the goodwill of the government (and corporations, and individual data thieves) not to abuse it. And then, I hope, somehow, people remain just political committed enough to keep things controlled.

It's hard to be optimistic: it's hard to say what this kind of optimism even looks like. I don't expect this to change: I think government will continue to collect all the data they can get, and look for ways to use it - and they will always be able to abuse it. I think companies will always have this data and will always abuse it, and will always be in danger of losing it, with nearly catastrophic consequences. But I also think that this abuse is, in the end, mostly a political question: do we have a government that benefits from abusing this data? (Or - since governments always abuse their power - what level of abuse will they be willing to commit?) The reason the NSA is not the Stasi is that the United States is not East Germany - complain all you want about our government, but it is not a dictatorship, it is not totalitarian. It is not because it is, still, a democracy - elections matter. They are at the root of our government and they are where our salvation or damnation will always lie.

Which means what I should really be worried about is last Tuesday. But that's a topic for another day.


Sam Juliano said...

I still haven't seen this film, though I nearly did on two occasions. Your commanding, exhaustive review looks like essential reading for anyone looking to further examine what is clearly a very disturbing experience. I was even told my a longtime liberal Democrat that she no longer trusts Obama and her party. Until this film or any other study convinces me that all of these horrific revelations didn't start in past GOP administrations I will not be convinced remotely. Your essay is most fascinating.

weepingsam said...

It certainly started with Bush, but national security, and the Surveillance State, is an area where the parties don't differ very much. Truth is, this probably has gotten worse under Obama, because Obama's administration is competent - they're good at it.