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Will Snowden film reignite cybersurveillance debate in Europe?

Oliver Stone's new film about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden paints a sympathetic portrait of an idealist who believes the power of the cyber-intelligence agencies could be abused if they are not made more accountable. Could this strike a chord with Europeans, whose memories of dictatorship and surveillance are just a generation or two away?

The film about cyber-whistleblower Edward Snowden by Oliver Stone has just been released in continental Europe (late October in the UK).

In the film, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) comes off as a somewhat lawless version of the NSA, the American security agency, that gets palmed off with all the jobs the more fastidious Americans won’t do themselves. As a junior security partner, presumably Britain has to go that extra step to be of value to the Americans in the intelligence trading game of swapping apples for oranges.

Anyway, the film is far less full-on than some of Stone’s previous offerings. More sober and more controlled, it lets the case speak for itself. It also mirrors Edward Snowden’s pacific, ultra-phlegmatic nerdiness. The man is more comfortable talking about ethics and philosophy of spying on people’s internet habits than about his emotional development – paralleling Stone’s – from being a Republican paid-up supporter of American foreign and security policy, to someone intensely sceptical of it.

Stone does his best to extract emotion and conventional drama from the Snowden material. The film’s emotional story arc is how Snowden’s good nature is teased out by his loyal fiancée, a left-wing, heart-of-gold amateur pole dancer called Lindsey Mills. She plays an important role in the film. At first, she is the innocent exemplar of everything the American security state – and therefore Snowden himself – professes to protect. He is engaged in battling Chinese hacks who try to break into American systems. There are several scenes with the two of them when it’s like: "If only you knew what I am protecting you from".

Snowden trained in the American special forces and starts the film as a Bush supporter. Mills teases him about this and Snowden willingly takes it, while sticking to his beliefs that he is fighting the good fight.

Yet as he gains experience inside the American cyber-security complex, he starts to realise the extent of the NSA’s surveillance capacities and begins to have doubts. He wonders if his household is spied on. The technology exists that allows anyone’s private laptop webcam to be commandeered remotely by the spooks. Visiting a command bunker, he sees CIA operators watching from a drone camera as Middle Eastern villagers are wiped out with a missile strike, just like that, poof, at the press of a button. There are 1.2 million people on the American global kill list and the information dragnet is total.

Snowden begins to turn on the national security complex: if they are protecting the realm, there is a lot of potential for abuse of the system.

The viewer travels with Snowden in his journey as an employee rising professionally through the national security apparatus, from bunker to bunker. We see how everything is hoovered up and how a google-like search engine for NSA (and GCHQ) employees called Xkeyscore brings together hundreds of millions of people’s SMS histories, their Facebook postings, private email conversations, email details, phone book and Facebook contacts. It is easy not only to find out everything about a target, but information about anyone the target has ever been associated with, however fleetingly. Anyone, innocent or guilty, is potentially vulnerable to the way this information about them and their loved ones is available at a few clicks of the mouse.

In the film, the CIA establishes a blackmail hold on a foreign financier by effortlessly hacking his teenage daughter’s steamy Facebook messages to her boyfriend. One can’t exclude the possibility that Stone has made a number of exaggerations for dramatic effect but, even if that were the case, it is positive if the whole issue of cybersurveillance comes up for debate once again.

The film can usefully be supplemented by reading journalist and cyber-spying expert Glenn Greenwald’s detailed journalistic fact book on the subject, No Place to Hide. Greenwald’s character features in the film.

Anyway, Stone found it impossible to get financing or distribution from any mainstream Hollywood studio and in the end, it was picked up by an independent distributor. Most of the film was made in Germany, a country where public opinion is strongly against Anglo-American worldwide surveillance activities.

It will be interesting to see whether Britain’s self divorce from the European Union will imply a more independent direction for continental Europe’s intelligence agencies, or whether it will just be business as usual. In intelligence matters, Britain is still a powerful player, working in harness with the Americans. Many Germans are still outraged at the revelation that the mobile phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel was tapped by the NSA. (Even though she surely knew and it is true that everybody does it to everyone.) Yet the BND – German intelligence – are, I understand, close partners of the Anglo-American intelligence community.

Stone’s previous films have included Salvador – about the US-supported death squads in 1980s El Salvador – and Born on the Fourth of July. Both films, like the Snowden one, are about men – a cynical drunken journalist in the former and an idealistic marine turned disabled veteran in the latter – who turn from innocent support for the USA, to staunch opposition to US foreign policy.

Stone makes the case that they are much better men and much better patriots than the apparatchiks in the Pentagon and the State Department. Stone’s take-home message, in the emotional finale, is that you can be a good patriot and oppose your government. Indeed, America was founded on the values of good individuals rebelling against power.

Unlike the Washington Post, which disowned Snowden after winning a Pulitzer Prize on the back of his revelations, Stone makes a very strong case for doubters influenced by US mainstream media criticism of 'Snowden the traitor'. He portrays Snowden as a hero and a true American.

Today’s power rests on control over information. Who controls the information? The intelligence agencies. Who controls the intelligence agencies? Are the politicians entirely in control? Some people will dislike it, as some American reviewers were left cold by the film, but as a thought-provoking drama about the technological surveillance society, Snowden is a must-see film.

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