On the 20th of May 2013, Edward arrives at The Mira hotel in Hong Kong. No one knows he is here. His supervisors at work believe he's taken a leave of absence for medical reasons.
Two weeks later, he welcomes lawyer, journalist and author Glenn Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitier into his hotel room. Minutes later, Laura sets up her camera to start filming an encounter that — among many other things — will result in the 2014 release of CitizenFour, a documentary that easily makes it up there with the best thrillers I've seen.
Over the course of eight days, Edward Snowden, a lead technologist for the United States National Security Agency (NSA), shares what he knows about the worldwide infrastructure that the NSA has built in cooperation with other governments. An infrastructure designed to intercept 'basically every digital communication, every radio communication, every analog communication that it has sensors in place to detect.'
He reveals how all of this information is automatically stored and made available to those who have access to the NSA system. If you have even the most basic idea of Google's ability to find what you're looking for, you may have an idea of how easily the NSA system sorts, digests and filters billions of pieces of information, retro-actively and into the future.
And if you think this is boring stuff, I'm going to state the obvious: the NSA and its allies are massively breaking in on our privacy — and therefore our freedom. 'We are building the greatest weapon of oppression in the history of man', Edward writes in one of his first encrypted email communications with Laura. On this 3rd of June 2013, he meets Laura and Glenn with classified information that he wants to be publicly disclosed. The NSA has no idea what Edward is about to bring out.
His actions inspire me not so much because of what he discloses, but because of why and how he does it.
'For me it all comes down to state power against the people's ability to meaningfully oppose that power. And I'm sitting there everyday getting paid to design methods to amplify that state power. (...) As I saw that, that really hardened me to action.'
Glenn asks Edward how he came to the point of risking the destruction of his own privacy and safety for the sake of a world that respects people's privacy. Edward responds:
'I remember what the Internet was like before it was being watched, and there's never been anything in the history of man that's like it. I mean, you could have children from one part of the world having an equal discussion where you know they were sort of granted the same respect for their ideas and conversation, with experts in a field from another part of the world, on any topic, anywhere, anytime, all the time. And it was free and unrestrained.
'And we've seen the chilling of that and the cooling of that and the changing of that model towards something in which people self-police their own views. And they literally make jokes about ending up on "the list" if they donate to a political cause, or if they say something in a discussion. And it's become an expectation that we're being watched.
'Many people I've talked to have mentioned that they're careful about what they type into search engines, because they know that it's being recorded. And that limits the boundaries of their intellectual exploration.
'And I'm more willing to risk imprisonment or any other negative outcome, personally, then I am willing to risk the curtailment of my intellectual freedom and that of those around me whom I care for, equally, as I do for myself.'
Edward could easily have disclosed the classified NSA documents by himself. But 'I don't want to be the person making the decisions on what should be public and what shouldn't. Which is why, rather than publishing these on my own, or putting them out openly, I'm running them through journalists. So that my bias, you know, and my things, because clearly I have some strongly held views, are removed from that equation, and the public interest is being represented in the most responsible manner.'
He also wants focus to be on the content of the information and not on his person as the whistleblower: 'I don't want to get myself into the issue before it's gonna happen anyway, and where it takes away from the stories that are getting out.'
If you still think this is boring stuff, I recommend you watch the film. At the very least you'll get to see a kick-ass documentary. But, to again state the obvious, that's not why I'm promoting it.
I'm watching the film. I look up its maker Laura Poitras on Wikipedia. I'm about to search Google for 'NSA'.
Suddenly I feel my body tensing up.
I find myself worrying about who's looking at what I'm doing. I wonder whether they (whoever 'they' are) might do something to sabotage my freedom of speech. Then I see myself looking into my laptop camera, thinking who or what might be looking at me right now, knowing what I type, knowing what I search, knowing what I email...
During the next hour, I find an anonymous search engine (update: this anonymous search engine - thanks René) and turn it into my browser's default search engine. I reset passwords, check my email security settings and install an email extension program so that I can encrypt messages should I wish to.
When I'm done, I'm left with this: why am I now suddenly doing this? Am I rightfully protecting myself, giving into fear, doing both? And should I even bother? Are we not way beyond the point of even thinking we can keep our data away from other people's hands or systems? Is there, or has there ever been, something like a 'free' Internet?
I don't know. I don't think CitizenFour illustrates how governments and institutions are becoming more fearful. I don't see a change in the drive to police society. I see only how it's becoming easier to track and lock people up for having an opinion that deviates from what is considered 'safe' by the state.
If merely knowing such far-reaching infringements on our privacy to possibly exist is enough for people to watch their words, doesn't the knowing by itself break into our freedom?
Insofar as we allow ourselves to be silenced, I would say yes. But so does any limiting belief or conviction that comes in the way of doing what we truly want. Right down to expressing what we feel to someone we love.
As I walk and stumble, I'm becoming more comfortable with voicing my self. But I'm definitely not immune to limiting beliefs and thoughts. And I haven't even come close to anything that Edward's been dealing with.
But I believe there's a flip-side to Edward's story: transparency works two ways.
As we become more vulnerable, so do governments, institutions and companies. More than at any time before us do we have the means to uncover what wants to be uncovered. And we don't have to stay in the dark doing it.
For Edward, it's important to go out in the open:
'These are public issues, these are not my issues, you know, these are everybody's issues. And I'm not afraid of you, you know, you're not going to bully me into silence like you've done to everybody else. And if nobody else is gonna do it, I will, and hopefully when I'm gone, whatever you do to me, there will be somebody else who'll do the same thing. (...) people who are trying to, you know, say the truth skulk around and they hide in the dark and they quote anonymously and what not... I say yes, fuck that.'
That said, you're still sticking your neck out if you're bringing home what big money and politics don't want the people to know: Edward's ride hasn't exactly been a walk in the park. He arrives in Hong Kong knowing that he's probably risking his life. With the help of human rights lawyers Jonathan Man and Robert Tibbo, he safely makes it out of the hotel where he's spent almost a month and gets to the UN's Hong Kong office. He applies for refugee status and goes underground.
Seventeen days after publication of the first NSA documents, the US government charges Edward with three felonies — two under the Espionage Act - and asks Hong Kong to hand him over. The next day, the US government cancels Edward's passport. He has not been convicted and there is no judicial order for the cancellation. Another day later, on the 23rd of June 2013, Edward boards a plane in search of political asylum. His departure from Hong Kong is organized by WikiLeaks. He wants to go to Ecuador but is stopped in the transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport.
Three Latin American countries join Ecuador in offering Edward permanent asylum. None of them can be reached by a direct flight from Moscow. The US Government allegedly pressures countries en route to halt Edward's travel. WikiLeaks tries to arrange a private jet but in the end advises Edward to stay in Russia — if he can.
After 40 days spent in the airport transit zone, Edward receives political asylum in Russia for one year. His asylum can be extended indefinitely on an annual basis. In July 2014, his partner Lindsay Mills, who knew nothing of his intentions until the NSA knocked on her door to question Edward's whereabouts, moves to Moscow to be with him.
Edward's lawyer has since said that Edward's main source of income is speaking fees, which have sometimes exceeded $10,000 for an appearance. You could call that a beneficial side-effect of sticking out your neck. You could even say that, seeing something like this coming, such a prospect may have encouraged Edward to take the steps that he did.
But I doubt it. I don't think he was in it for the money, let alone thinking about it. The US Government, or any government for that matter, doesn't exactly sport a friendly track record when it comes to whistleblowers. To take a stance against something of a size that you and I — and probably even Edward — have no idea about, takes balls.
And yet it doesn't. I believe you come to a point where there's no question. It may not be a point in time. It may only be reserved for certain things in your life, or for the one thing that rings all of your bells, but there's a point at which a trade-off between 'right' and 'practical' disappears. Simply because not doing the right thing becomes too hard to live with.
A friend of mine, who once decided to start walking through Europe with no money to find out if we really care as little for each other as the media will have us believe, told me: 'The "bravest" decision is all the way at the beginning, when you decide to listen to yourself. After that, the steps just come and there's really no more question of "courage". You can just no longer do otherwise.'
Edward's case may be an extreme example, but is it?
Is it practical to hide what we know to be wrong? Is it practical to live in the knowledge that what should come out doesn't because we keep it locked away? Is it practical to work a job that pays us money to continue doing a job that we don't want to do — even when we think it only harms ourselves?
As far as practical goes, I believe freeing ourselves to act on what makes us feel alive is the most practical thing we can do, whatever the case. As for Edward, he doesn't see his blowing the whistle as a sacrifice: 'it gives me... I feel good in my human experience to know that I can contribute to the good of others.'
I'm not saying I would have done the same if I were Edward. I don't know if I would. I can't even begin to imagine what it must be like to go into the NSA facility day after day, copy thousands of pieces of classified information, secretly contact a journalist and a filmmaker, lie to my supervisor and leave the country to maybe never return again — all without sharing what I think and feel and do with anyone.
Edward's story strengthens me in knowing that, really, there is no difference between right and practical. He helps me trust what feels right, especially when things get scary. And in my own experience, I know how liberating it is to feel right and practical dissolving into one.
Since in Russia, Edward has tried to make a deal with the government he's been leaking on. 'I’ve volunteered to go to prison with the government many times.'
If he is to return to the US without a deal, he will be tried under the Espionage Act, which means no jury and a prison time of at least thirty years and up to a lifetime. But according to The Guardian, a plea deal seems unlikely. Security officials from both the US and UK want Edward to serve a long sentence, as punishment and to deter others.
So he remains a political refugee. 'I won’t serve as a deterrent to people trying to do the right thing in difficult situations.' As for his moniker 'CitizenFour', he tells filmmaker Laura Poitier: 'Well, I’m not the first person who’s going to come forward and reveal information that the public should know, and I won’t be the last.'
If you still think this is boring stuff, I recommend you see the film. You can watch it here on Documentary Heaven.