Using its full running time for a special feature, the 13th episode of Vice‘s fourth season focuses on one of the preeminent debates of the modern era — national surveillance — straight from one of the most controversial men in recent American history: Edward Snowden. Stationed in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow, Vice founder Shane Smith takes a unique opportunity to interview the man who pulled back the curtain on the NSA’s extensive surveillance program in the US and abroad, and further enflamed the debate on civilian rights in a post-9/11 America.
The episode opens with an overview of the most recent bullet point of the debate: the debacle surrounding the FBI’s requesting Apple to provide a means to hack into the phone of one of the San Bernardino shooters. Despite Apple’s adamancy they would not provide such a pathway out of concerns for customer security, Snowden revealed in a broadcast to a conference of citizens’ group Common Cause that it ultimately didn’t matter.
“The FBI has argued that Apple has the exclusive technical means to get into this phone,” he said. “Respectfully, that’s horseshit.”
Snowden was proven right soon after, as the FBI successfully hacked into the phone without Apple’s help.
In his hotel room in Moscow, Smith questions Snowden about why the security of a phone is so important a subject. As Snowden explains it, hacking a phone is like hacking a person.
“Every part of a private life is found on someone’s phone,” he says. “We used to say a man’s home is his castle. Today, a man’s phone is his castle.”
Snowden explains the aftermath of 9/11 and the era of the Patriot Act, in which the US government’s outlook on surveillance changed entirely. He explains how Dick Cheney, with his legal counsel and Chief of Staff David Addington, helped produce a whole new culture of surveillance, one which changed its focus from exceptional examples of personal surveillance to surveillance of everyone. Evolving from the United States’ documented history of surveillance scandals, from the FBI’s monitoring and threatening of Martin Luther King Jr., to the country’s most famous case, the Watergate Scandal, the 21st century’s age of universal technological access has ushered in a new era where anyone at anytime can be monitored.
Smith asks Snowden how such a surveillance overhaul was permitted.
“Partly because it was done invisibly,” he explains. “If a politician had said ‘we want to watch everyone in the country’, people would have been up in arms about it.” He provides the example of the multiple amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, a federal law to “authorize electronic surveillance to obtain foreign intelligence information”, in 2008. These amendments were passed entirely through a secret court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). It’s an insight into a startling reality: the amount of radical litigation commenced without any public awareness or say. Ultimately, the US Government has the final say and debate on particularly important matters, as long as they can justify them as vital to national security.
Snowden continues by explaining the currency within the larger sphere and machine of surveillance: metadata, or the kind of data that can be collected from one’s phone at any one time. As Snowden analogizes it, in an era of mass surveillance, there is no longer a need for private detectives or surveillance agents: a tapped phone provides any information either of them could gather. This includes one’s location, the length of time one was there, when one left, who one spoke to, etc. The Sam Spades of the 21st century, it seems, are literally in everyone’s pocket.
Such metadata is collected from a phone’s SIM Card, which are monitored and scanned via devices called IMSI Catchers. What’s most disturbing about such devices is how frequently they’re being used worldwide. Specifically, police forces around the world have been reported to be using them to spy on both civilians and world leaders. One such case was in 2014, in which it was reported that police in Oslo had ISMI Catchers stationed in major government buildings.
As Snowden explains, such surveillance and data tapping, however, can be found much closer to home. He describes a surveillance project called “Shenanigans”, a cooperation between the NSA and CIA, involving flying planes with ISMI Catcher around major cities across the world. However, it wasn’t long before the program made its way back home.
“These programs have a disturbing frequency, a tendency to move from warfront to homefront,” he explains. “And within six months of Shenanigans being reported, the Wall Street Journal reported that the same technology was being used domestically within the United States. The FBI has a specific aviation unit that’s flying around cities, and frequently they’re monitoring protestors rather than than violent criminals.” Even in our contemporary era of the continuing struggle for civil rights and the use of public protest, it seems there’s still the possibility of a modern J. Edgar Hoover, using planes instead of vans.
As seen in Oslo, even members of the US government aren’t safe from surveillance. Snowden references the 2014 incident in which computers within the Senate Intelligence Committee, the organization dedicated to overseeing and reviewing the actions of the US Intelligence Committee, including the CIA, were hacked…by the CIA.
“This is basically rewriting the law,” explains committee member Senator Ron Wyden, “We are the agency that is required by law to conduct vigorous oversight of the CIA. And we can’t do vigorous oversight over the agency if the agency we’re supposed to be overseeing is in fact secretly searching our files.”
Essentially, Wyden asks, what is a country founded on the concept of “checks and balances” when those being checked can spy on those checking them? In a befuddling distortion of the Latin political phrase “quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (“who watches the watchmen?”), what happens when those watching the watchmen are being watched by the watchmen? More to the point, who are the watchmen, when anyone’s capable of spying on anyone?
As a demonstration of just how much control over a phone is in government hands at any one time, the Vice team has a counter-hacker tap into Vice correspondent Ben Anderson’s phone while he’s on assignment. The hacker’s able to track Anderson’s calls and Internet searches, and is even able to turn on the camera in Anderson’s phone and take a picture of him without him knowing.
“It’s sort of like reading someone’s mind,” the hacker explains to Smith. “Because you can see what they’re thinking while they’re on the Internet.”
Smith explains the implications such capabilities have for the future of journalism: one in which the assurance of protection and privacy for sources is in jeopardy. If anyone is capable of listening in on someone’s conversation via their phone, it makes for the possibility of a world where going “dark”, or into seclusion to interview protected sources, impossible.
All these questions, concerns, and inquiries revolve around the primary purpose of such surveillance: the protection of the United States from terrorist threats. Yet, ultimately, given all the programs and justifications, how effective is it in the first place? To answer this question, the White House held two separate Commissions to analyze all of the government’s surveillance initiatives.
“They looked at the evidence,” Snowden says, “and they found, despite going on since 2001, it had never stopped a single terrorist attack in the United States. And that’s after monitoring the phone calls of everyone in the country.
“This is really the legacy of mass surveillance. When you cast the net too wide, when you’re collecting everything, you understand nothing. We know for a fact it is not effective in stopping terrorist attacks, and it never has been.”
What’s most starting is that in the aftermath of such rulings, 42 suggestions were made for how to improve the surveillance system. Based on the last updates, only three have been passed, for fear the others would limit the powers of the President.
Snowden still remains a highly controversial figure to this day, many citing him as a hero for his revelations, while many others deem his act a threat to national security. Even former US Attorney General Eric Holder provided a confused commendation of Snowden, declaring him a national hero while emphasizing that he need face justice for his actions.
Whatever one’s thoughts on Snowden’s actions, his concerns are hard to dismiss. A nation in which substantial changes to security, law, and citizen rights are made behind the scenes with little to no citizen awareness seems like a news story from a foreign dictatorship, but which is very much a reality at home. Any country, especially one ostensibly dedicated to freedom as the United States, which creates secret courts to discuss secret cases, but with very public repercussions, is questionable to say the least.
While the regular argument made in favor of mass surveillance is “if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear”, Snowden’s comments are thus: the definition of what one has “to hide” may change from one administration to the next, given the frequent change in power, and opinion, of the executive branch. In a country where only three of 42 possible changes to surveillance programs, changes suggested to improve a system that’s evidently ineffective in stopping terrorist plots, are adopted out of fear of limiting the executive branch, it begs the question of what is actually taking priority: governmental power or civilian safety.
While the line is regularly blurred between these two facets, to put more on the former is not an assurance of the latter. What’s to say might happen when the executive branch decides to crack down a little harder, something especially worth considering should a man as boastfully apathetic of personal freedoms as Donald Trump take office.
“We live in a time where the politics of fear, are the most persuasive thing on the table,” Snowden summarizes. “It’s a world that’s coming, and that we’re going to have to confront.”
With its thirteenth episode, Vice uses its always impressive resources and insights to ask the questions worth pondering in a country only more at war than it realized it was 15 years ago. Drawing insightful questions and answers from Snowden, Vice lays on the table Snowden’s motivations, putting aside the debate over his actions to get at the root of his concerns. Whatever Snowden will ultimately be to history, his fears are ones worth recognizing in ourselves.
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