If Citizenfour, the Edward Snowden documentary about mass illegitimate government surveillance, wins an Oscar Sunday night it will be a monumental event. First because the Academy generally doesn't celebrate horror movies, and second because Hollywood, no matter how many fundraisers it throws for Democrats, is actually a pretty conservative town.
It's interesting to note that Harvey Weinstein, the mogul whose company owns Citizenfour's distributor, once believed that Edward Snowden was "a traitor." Then he watched the documentary, in which director Laura Poitras films Mr. Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel room as he outlines the U.S. government's clandestine programs for spying on its own citizens, and the citizens of other countries. "It changed my opinion about him," Mr. Weinstein said.
What Hollywood does appreciate is a good film about threat: Think of Jurassic Park's rampaging dinosaurs, or the menace embodied by a blank sheet of paper in Barton Fink. A documentary about existential threat is harder to pull off, perhaps because human beings are notoriously ill-equipped to deal with any risk that's not actually in plain sight. A charging rhino, yes; a government that thumbs its nose at limits on its power – that barely squeezes the adrenalin pump.
What Mr. Snowden does in the documentary is very calmly lay out a particular danger, one that he clearly felt was worth ruining the rest of his life over. (He is living in exile in Russia, and is facing three charges brought by federal prosecutors in the United States.) It's not the threat of terrorism, which he feels is overblown, and not just the threat posed by secret surveillance, which is only a symptom of the disease. It's the risk that democracy itself is threatened when a government stops caring that it governs at the pleasure of the people – and the people forget it, too.
As Mr. Snowden says at one point in the documentary, "The balance of power between the citizens and government is becoming the ruling and the ruled, rather than the elected and the electorate." In other words, allow a government to act with impunity and it will act with impunity.
This is only a problem if you're living in a country which is about to introduce sweeping new security powers with no corresponding watchdog capabilities, in response to a vague and illusory danger. Or if, for example, four former prime ministers of that country had expressed worries about those new powers, only to be pooh-poohed by the current Prime Minister. Or that four out of five of your countrymates were quite happy to trust in the benign hand of the government to do what was right, without anyone looking over its shoulder. Oh, wait – that's starting to sound familiar. I think I have to lie down.
Canada, of course, does not come out of the Snowden leaks with clean hands – the documents he took from the National Security Agency and shared with journalists include revelations of our spy agencies eavesdropping on Canadians' electronic communications, snooping on foreign embassies and governments, and allowing U.S. counterparts to collect intelligence here during G8 and G20 summits. This all occurred without public debate, even before the proposed expansion of their powers.
If you want to talk about breathtaking impunity, consider the latest revelations from the Snowden trove: The cyber spies of the NSA and Britain's Government Communications Headquarters allegedly stole encryption keys of the world's largest maker of SIM cards, Gemalto. Essentially, government authorities can surreptitiously access millions of cellphone users' voice and text data, all without the need for pesky scrutiny from courts or lawyers. This, according to the journalists at The Intercept who broke the story, is akin to a thief swiping all the keys off a building superintendents' key ring. Gemalto's now-inconvenient slogan is "Security to be Free."
You might have expected this news to cause a tsunami of outrage, at least as great as the one over Beyonce's pre-Photoshopped L'Oreal pictures. As Thomas Fox-Brewster wrote at Forbes, the latest news of surveillance malfeasance "has effectively destroyed any remaining shred of trust people had in use of everyday telecoms services." In other words, peoples' phones are being tapped, full stop, without their permission or any kind of legal oversight. Instead of that tsunami, though, there was a gentle ripple of disbelief – perhaps because this latest indignity is just another drop in the ocean.
It's not that Canadians don't care about government snooping: In January, a poll by the Privacy Commissioner's office showed that 78 per cent of respondents were concerned about their online communications ending up in official hands. But in the heavyweight fight between privacy and security, it looks like privacy's on the ropes.
Earlier this month, Mr. Snowden appeared via computer link at a question and answer session with the students of Toronto's Upper Canada College. The nature of surveillance had changed, he said, from tracking "bad guys" to tracking everyone. "When this happens in secret, outside the context of public laws, public debate and public consent, not only does this change the nature of our democracy, it changes our ability to control the government."
Here's hoping that message gets the audience, and the prize, it deserves.