George Orwell's 1984 opens with Winston Smith carving out a pocket of privacy by crouching in a corner of his apartment where the telescreen—and thus Big Brother—can't see and writing a diary entry. These days, that Stalin-inspired nightmare seems quaint.
We carry our personal telescreens around with us, and take it for granted that if someone wants to watch us, they can.There is nowhere to hide, even in the Hong Kong hotel room where Laura Poitras filmed Edward Snowden talking to Glenn Greenwald about the revelations about the NSA the whistleblower unleashed on the world. At one point in Citizenfour, Poitras's film about the surveillance state and Snowden, an impatient Snowden yanks the hotel phone's plug from the wall. All VoIP phones can be bugged, he explains, tossing away the cord. The NSA could know what he ordered from room service.
Much of Citizenfour was shot over the eight days that Poitras and Greenwald spent with Snowden. In contrast to the gray poverty of 1984's Oceania, the documentary's dystopian setting is sleekly modern. Poitras shoots NSA data centers, Occupy Wall Street privacy training sessions, and the posh no-placeness of the business-class hotel. Snowden proves what the two journalists already suspected and, thanks to him, we all now know: The US government is spying on everyone. He then trains them in the cumbersome feints with which they might evade its gaze.
Citizenfour is about surveillance. But its also about what surveillance does to you. How does authority's gaze change us? In a world where every keystoke is potentially watched, and every heartbeat potentially counted, does knowledge of that change how you act? Will you still allow yourself to question? How can you organise against power when you live entirely in its sight?
While Snowden's NSA revelations are most associated with the internet, "online surveillance" is a bit of a misnomer. The web long ago bled into meatspace. A CCTV camera could easily capture your face, then link that up to your Facebook profile, your purchases, your friends. You shed data like strands of hair. You're both made up of data and more than the sum of it, like DNA.
Critics sometimes chide the American anti-surveillance movement for the whiteness and maleness of its public faces. While women and people of colour have done brilliant, under-recognised work against surveillance, this perception might be no coincidence: White men are the last people in America who thought they had privacy.
"Invasive spying and government surveillance in the name of fighting terrorism is hardly news for Arab and Muslim-American communities," wrote Anna Lekas Miller in the Guardian last year when Snowden's leaks went public. Since 9/11, the US government has flooded Muslim communities with informants. FBI and NYPD plants haunted mosques and bookshops, sometimes trying to pressure innocent men into making plans, or even expressing sentiments, that could get them charged with terrorism.
The history of black people in the US is one of even more intimate—and bloody—state intrusions. Think of the FBI infiltrating black power groups, of the government blackmailing MLK. America's prison system disproportionately cages the black and brown, capturing not just the incarcerated, but their families, in its nets. Those visiting loved ones at Rikers must submit to fingerprinting, lift up their tongues and shake out their bras in front of a prison guard. Outside the cages, this lack of privacy is reinforced by police who grope and question black youth just for walking—is it any wonder that young men in these communities are finely attuned to the movements and whims of the police? That they internalise a fear of authority that's proven expert at wielding fear as a tool.
Women, especially women of colour, also live under that gaze. Who they sleep with, whether they bear children, how they raise them—all of that is subject to scrutiny by the government and society at large. At the level of public policy, laws are made restricting their reproductive decisions. At the level of the street, we're told to "smile!" by strange men. Just another reminder we're being watched.
Not that most people are hiding, exactly—the internet is a radical tool for self expression, and there are addictive benefits to living in public. On Twitter, we often type like we're drunks babbling at a cocktail party, but the sentences sit in cyberspace forever. Our former selves live in the cloud, in the Wayback Machine, on the servers of the NSA's data centers. They lie waiting to betray us. Online, as in middle school, everything goes on your permanent record.
Few people hold up under this sort of scrutiny. Most people are good, but everyone is fucked. We've all been cruel and cowardly. We all nurse our shameful secrets. Some heroin snorted, a coworker fucked, a friend gossiped about, a lie told. Everyone's done something they hope no one finds out—and chances are, a trace of it is lingering on a server somewhere.
Getting away with expressing complexity is still a privilege. That's means that exceptions notwithstanding, mostly its white men who are allowed to have done wrong. This is a lesson that Citizenfour unintentionally reinforces by showing us Julian Assange, a persecuted and courageous publisher of government secrets, without hinting that he's been accused by two women of rape.
“We get the vapors over dark, brooding gritty men. But when confronted with.. flesh-and-blood women who have had to make hard choices and whose moral scorecard includes more than a few red marks, suddenly… we barrage them with… invective,” wrote Katherine Cross of Jane Doe, a teenage trans girl who was then locked in solitary confinement in a men's prison without a charge. Jane had been accused of hitting a guard at the juvenile facility where she lived. One alleged act of impulse during a hard life of abuse, and she got thrown in a hole. Without a concerted campaign by activists, almost no one would have objected.
In the past few months the hashtags #NoAngel and #IfTheyGunnedMeDown spread on social media, inspired by the tone of coverage about black men and boys who had been killed by the police—if a victim had frowned in a selfie or Instagrammed himself wearing jewelry or (God forbid!) been photographed with a joint, articles would imply that the victim was a dangerous “thug” who no doubt had it coming. There was no room for a black teen to be complicated in the way a white teen could be. In America, to not embody arbitrary standards of perfection is to be asking for it. What does it cost you to contort yourself?
In the words of that wise Twitter account, Infosec Taylor Swift, “Mass surveillance is the elegant oppression, a panopticon without bars. Its cage is… behind the eyes—in the mind.” Under authority's gaze, many people become smaller, more obedient, less daring.
Surveillance leaves scars.
Privacy activists rightly denounce the blanket surveillance of “innocent Americans.” But what about those who, because of skin colour or faith, power has marked as guilty? If you're not a “person of interest” technologies like PGP, Tor, and Jabber OTR can be enough to keep your most of your communications out of the NSA's dragnet. If you're a member of a marginalised group, the stakes are higher. Pockets of privacy become more scarce.The government's gaze is not only fixed on your laptop. You're watched by the CCTV camera, the neighbourhood informer, the cop loitering on the corner. Surveillance bleeds into your life, online and off.
If power has already decided people like you are guilty, even the smallest transgressions can be disastrous.
Snowden is free, living with his partner in Moscow. Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald are justly feted on the Lincoln Center stage. But countless people live under the government's gaze, because of nothing more than their skin colour or heritage. Too many of them know what Winston Smith learned by the end of 1984. Once the state starts paying attention, hiding from the Telescreens does no good.
Follow Molly Crabapple on Twitter.
More stuff about this kind of stuff: