Privacy, Surveillance, and Oliver Stone’s ‘Snowden’

September 20, 2016

Snowden, the new film about the real-life story of spy agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, was co-written and directed by Oliver Stone, who has made a career out of questioning authority (particularly of the American government) in his biting films.

Snowden is not a documentary, and in fact doesn’t even claim to be a true story: The film begins with the caveat that the events over the next two and a quarter hours are “a dramatization of events” that that happened to the real-life Edward Snowden. For as imaginative–not to say slightly unhinged–a director as Oliver Stone can be, Snowden is surprisingly formulaic, and hits all the expected film tropes: Snowden’s status as a wunderkind (in a computer spycraft classroom he finishes his assignment in under 40 minutes instead of the expected five to eight hours, to the astonishment of his teacher); Snowden’s meet-cute with his girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley, decked out in a nerd-girl cred knit cap); and so on. The film jumps back and forth in time as Snowden relates what led him to publish classified information about government spy agencies; what happened as a few trusted journalists gathered to expose the truth; and the fallout.

Like Woody Allen, Stone uses his characters as mouthpieces to espouse (at least token) conflicting viewpoints. I was disappointed not by Snowden‘s depth but instead its superficiality: It wants to raise awareness of Big and Important Ideas of privacy, citizen’s rights and so on–but only within Stone’s proscribed framework.

Stone’s films convey his bluster and moral outrage, but often stop just short of really offering a sincere or nuanced discussion of his controversial topics. It’s like a civics teacher who can’t or won’t tackle alternate viewpoints or answer questions that might challenge the textbook’s conventional wisdom. It all appears clear-cut and tidy, but a closer look reveals some contradictions.

Several logical corollaries to (and implications of) Snowden’s view are momentarily raised but immediately glossed over. For example when Snowden cautions Lindsay that she shouldn’t have artistic nudes of herself on her hard drive lest her computer be accessed by the government’s electronic spies she replies that she doubts “my boobs are an issue of national security.” The exchange is meant to demonstrate her naïveté about government surveillance–oh, if she only understood what the tortured Edward does–but in fact she makes a very good point: Why would the CIA or NSA (National Security Agency) care about photos on her hard drive?

Snowden, Stone, and others can express legitimate outrage at raw data being collected en masse on all Americans without a warrant–but that doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone is actually being spied upon, or their phone calls, e-mails, text messages, and other communications read. There is a difference between communication metadata (for example, lists of times and durations of phone calls to a specific number, or frequency of e-mails to or from a given e-mail account) and actually reading or accessing the content of that phone call or e-mail. By conflating the two Snowden subtly undermines its message.

The disparity was brought into clear focus in the wake of the November 2015 attacks in Paris that killed 129 people–and the attack on the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper office in January of that year–when French authorities were forced to explain why the attacks weren’t prevented even though several of the attackers were known to authorities for their terrorist links, and the French benefit from cooperation with American, British, and other intelligence agencies. The answer was simple: they can’t track or watch everyone, even if they wanted to.

Intelligence officials have stated that it takes fifteen to twenty agents to monitor one suspect 24 hours a day. This is an incredibly costly and time-consuming process. At the time of the attacks the French authorities had 11,000 people flagged as a possible threat to national security; of those 5,000 were elevated to an additional level of concern and considered candidates for additional surveillance.

America’s spy agencies don’t have enough staff to monitor the residents of Cleveland, much less the entire country or the whole world. It would easily tie up every national security employee indefinitely. This doesn’t mean that raw data on tens of millions may not be gathered, but whether anyone ever actually looks at it (or has reason to analyze it) is a whole other matter. The problem that intelligence agencies face is not having too little data, but precisely the opposite: having too much.

If a few thousand people on established watchlists who have criminal records and/or known connections to terrorist organizations can’t be tracked, why would anyone think that government spy agencies are spending their time reading the personal e-mails or spying on ordinary citizens? The vast majority of Americans (and their communications) are exactly like Lindsay’s boobs: they are of no interest whatsoever to national security and therefore are unlikely in the extreme to be picked out of the literally billions of communications exchanged globally every day to be examined by a human.

This of course does not mean that ordinary people–accountants, Denny’s managers, car mechanics, etc.–cannot be spied upon and watched, just that it’s very unlikely that they would: With terrorist attacks to prevent, Russian hackers to deal with, and countless other legitimate threats and targets, why would the NSA listen in on a teenager’s cell phone conversation, or intercept a text between a married couple about what groceries to buy on the way home from work? It’s likely that at least 99.99997% of communications between average Americans (the ones that Snowden suggests are being watched) are irrelevant to anything that national security agencies care about, and because of that it would be pointless, counterproductive, and an enormous waste of resources to monitor what most of us do, say, or write.

This doesn’t invalidate Snowden’s concerns about possible illegal government surveillance on innocent citizens, and his revelations did in fact lead to additional oversight of the agencies involved. But it does suggest that the Stone-scribed screenplay’s assertion that all or most American citizens are being monitored is largely a paranoid fiction. If you really think that the government is spying on you, ask yourself what important information you have that the American intelligence community doesn’t, and can only find out by tapping your phone or intercepting your e-mails.

The average person’s privacy can be invaded in countless ways, by anyone from Peeping Tom neighbors to anonymous computer hackers; American spy agencies hardly have that market cornered. And, of course, many millions of people voluntarily post private information about themselves on Facebook, Instagram, and other social media. From the names and birthdays of their family members, to pets, to when (and where) they go on vacation to personal medical issues and so on, there’s an enormous amount of personal data that people happily put online.

Thus Snowden works best not as a considered analysis of government spying but instead as a character study of how a once (and arguably still) patriotic computer nerd came to expose abuses (or potential abuses) in America’s top spy agencies. (The irony that spying whistleblower Edward Snowden sought refuge in Russia under the protection of ex-KGB spy chief Vladimir Putin–who himself spent decades spying on Russians and Americans alike and is certainly no friend of free speech or privacy–is one that Stone has no interest in exploring.)

e’s directing is restrained, and his flourishes serve–rather than detract from–the story. His use of shadows, changing depth of field, surreal transitions, and so on keep the film visually interesting through a lot of potentially deadening exposition. The actors are fine all around. Gordon-Levitt does a good job of depicting Snowden’s conflicted nature and gradual disillusionment, though Woodley’s role is largely thankless. Oliver Stone is not known for his rounded depictions of female characters, and Lindsay serves mostly to humanize Snowden and depict the damage (both real and imagined) that his job takes on their relationship and his health.

Whether you consider Edward Snowden a hero or traitor, his story is a fascinating and important one. Snowden is a passable fictional retelling of his journey, though ironically had Stone adopted the more feral tone he’s known for (think Natural Born Killers crossed with Hackers) it might have been more entertaining.