SNOWDEN – The digital cold war

Oliver Stone and Edward Snowden. The most anti-American award-winning director in Hollywood and one of the most world’s most notorious whistleblowers and US dissidents. The two have met 9 times between 2014 and 2015 in Moscow, where Snowden has been granted political asylum after his revelations about mass surveillance in 2013 in what’s known as the Datagate scandal.

The film SNOWDEN has all the hallmarks of the Stone ‘brand’: politics, conspiracy, and an excursus into the hypocritical nature of American exceptionalism. It also has another signature ingredient: exceptional timing. SNOWDEN is being premiered at the Toronto and the Rome Film Festivals as well as released in cinemas in the heart of one of the most hard-fought presidential elections in American history. The Republican candidate Donald Trump publically invited Vladamir Putin’s Russia to spy on Hillary Clinton to recover ‘lost’ emails that could incriminate her. Any intrusion by Russian hackers into the ex-Secretary of State’s private email correspondence would surely constitute an act of interference into the United States’ internal affairs by one of its historic geopolitical enemies. The alleged hacking aims more to delegitimize American democracy tout court rather than reveal how this particular presidential election is being sewn up by the existing political establishment.

Alarmist cries about the beginning of a new Cold War 2.0 are growing and not without opportunistic rhetoric from outside and within the United States. The Vice President Joe Biden has announced a possible cyber-attack against the Kremlin to be carried out by the CIA. The target of the attack would be to reveal confidential information about Vladimir Putin to discredit him in the eyes of the Russian people. This would be a tough ask given the high level of consensus that the 21st century Czar enjoys in Russian public opinion, much less sensitive to scandals than the US.

Cyber war, cyber terrorism, cyber security. Today information technology is a powerful unconventional weapon. It’s able to bring entire nation states to their knees as strategic infrastructure are paralyzed by hackers working for enemy states or autonomous cybernetic warriors. It’s a story of battles, reprisals, attacks and counter-offensives along fiber optic cables.

Oliver Stone dives deep into the issue of personal data piracy in this biography of Edward Snowden (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt). The ex-CIA systems analyst and former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor is one of the figureheads of the movement to safeguard each individual’s right to privacy. 31 years old at the time, he leaked details of extensive internet and phone surveillance program run by American intelligence known as PRISM. This top secret program eaves dropped on millions of American citizens and also European heads of state.

Oliver Stone’s film has all the ingredients of a blockbuster. The storyline follows the life of Edward Snowden from 2004, when he enrolled into the Special Forces as an idealistic 20 year old, until his revelations in 2013. The plot is easy to follow and combines global politics and tech with suspense and a real-life love affair between Snowden and his girlfriend Lindsay Mills.

“I’d like to help me country and make a difference to the world.”

Snowden’s military career ends after he brakes both legs in an accident while on training.

“There are other ways to serve your country” suggests a doctor at the Maryland military base. Snowden soon discovers them, starting work at the NSA at only 21 years old and then at the CIA as a cyber spy.

“Why do you want to enter into the CIA.”

“It seems cool to hack into security systems.”

“The most important day of your life? 11th September.”

Snowden turns out to be a computer genius. He’s much too important to be wasted as cannon fodder in the gulf fighting to conquer an oil well. Sent to Geneva on his first mission under the diplomatic cover of the United Nations, he works to undercover the network of hidden financial backers behind Osama Bin Laden.

Snowden, now 27, goes back into the NSA as a contractor. He’s sent to Tokyo to impress the Japanese with the power of America’s electronic surveillance machine. This is when his relationship with the NSA starts to falter.

“Have you ever heard of the Nuremberg trails? […] the aim of Nuremberg was to avoid routine tasks becoming war crimes.” (Snowden speaking to Corbin O’Brian, his boss and mentor at the NSA)

“Many Americans don’t want freedom, they want to feel secure […] In a few years Iraq will be a black hole that nobody will be interested in. China, Russia and Iran; these are our enemies. Cyber attacks are their weapons […].” (Corbin O’Brian)

Snowden isn’t willing to see the freedom and privacy of his fellow citizens sacrificed on the altar of national security, especially as no surveillance program has ever shown itself to be effective in stopping terrorist attacks.

“It’s not that spying people more will give us more security, rather we’ve so many people under surveillance that we don’t know what we have in our hands.” (Snowden to The Guardian)

Snowden’s last posting is to Hawaii in NSA’s installation there called the ‘tunnel’. This is the hardest moment for the hacker of the hackers. Snowden sees Epic Shelter, the program that he’d built to manage sensitive data, transformed under his eyes into a giant net for trawling data from all across the world. At this point in the film (and one of its most thrilling scenes), Snowden steals the files containing the metadata of millions of citizens from across the globe, including Russians who are the most spied upon. He escapes to Hong Kong where he makes a series of revelations to The Guardian’s Gleen Greenwalk and Laura Poitras, an investigative documentary maker.

Today Edward Snowden is 33 years old and lives in exile in Moscow. He’s the spokesperson of an international campaign, supported also by Oliver Stone, for an international treaty on the right to privacy and protection against improper surveillance, also known as the ‘Snowden Treaty’.

Even though he’s a hero for anti-establishment liberals and a symbol around which all movements for the defense of privacy unite, Snowden remains a controversial figure. He’s seen as a traitor in the eyes of most Republicans and Democrats (Hillary Clinton and John Kerry included). According to Donald Trump, he should be executed.

The making of ‘Snowden’ was no less adventurous than the life of its main character. Filming was carried out under cover (codename Sasha). Telephone calls and emails were severely prohibited and every detail was discussed in person. Convinced that it’d be too risky to make the film in the United States, Stone decided to film in Germany.

In the final scene, Stone manages to involve the real Edward Snowden in a cameo appearance:

“I was interested in his emotional state. A very difficult thing for him as he’s not an actor.” (Oliver Stone)

“I don’t need to worry about what will happen tomorrow as I’m happy about what I did today.” (Edward Snowden)

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