Snowden Movie – Powerful with Lingering Questions

Snowden Movie Poster
Snowden Movie Poster

On Wednesday I attended an early screening of Oliver Stone’s Snowden. After the movie was a live interview with director Oliver Stone, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, and Edward Snowden. Aside from it being a great movie I want to discuss the themes and thoughts it leaves the viewer.

From a technology standpoint there are some very important points in the movie to consider.

Snowden Movie Themes

The public disclosures of the mass surveillance programs used by the NSA were started in 2013. So far not much has been known about the key figure – Edward Snowden. With the release of CitizenFour the public finally got a direct look at the man central to the story. This movie explores his history in much more detail.

The film starts with the initial meeting with reporters Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Ewen MacAskill at the hotel Mira in Hong Kong. From there it interweaves back through Snowden’s career showing key elements that led him to the current situation in the hotel room.

It’s a dramatic sequence of events with frequent tension interspersed with bits of Snowden’s relationships which serve to humanize him. You’ll like this film if you want to see a story of who Snowden really is more than the story of mass surveillance.

Here’s some takeaways from the film:

  • Security by obscurity – the intelligence community seems to thrive on measures which are primarily secure only because they are secret.
  • Privacy vs security – you are being watched is pervasive throughout the showing.
  • Abuse of power – there’s a staggering amount of trust we unknowingly place in those who seem to have little accountability for their actions. Remember – who watches the watchmen?
  • Idealist into the fray – Snowden experiences several scenes of cognitive dissonance which lead to his disillusionment with the intelligence agencies he is employed by. It’s interesting to see his character change and how his ideals are kept and strengthened through it all.

Snowden Post Film Interview

Post Snowden Movie Interview
Post Snowden movie interview

The panel talks about the film and production but the more interesting bits were about the mass surveillance programs.



A few things are worth noting from the talk:

  • Precedent of whistleblowers – Daniel Ellsberg, William Binney, and Thomas Drake. The history of Binney and Drake show why Snowden took the action he did.
  • Legal isn’t necessarily right – things that are lawful are not always the right thing to do. In the case of the mass surveillance programs it’s not even legal.
  • The right to privacy – Snowden says “privacy is the right to self”. When we lose privacy we lose the ability to selectively make our mistakes and show ourselves. It’s the difference between consent and coercion. We should share on our own terms.
  • Oversimplification and complexity – nothing new here. True of working in technology and everything else that involves humans. Example: cloud computing.

Anyone who works with databases, technology, private data, or the systems which house them can get something out of this. Many people defend these abuses with the tired refrain: “if you have nothing to hide then what are you afraid of”. I’ll conclude with my favorite quote in response to that nonsense reaction.

Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.

–Edward Snowden


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