Edward Snowden and Citizenfour: Unmasking Global Surveillance

Film - June 3, 2024

Context and Relevance of the Documentary

Documentary is a film genre characterized by the representation of reality through images and sounds, with the intention of informing, educating, or entertaining the viewer. Unlike fiction, documentaries are based on real events, people, and authentic situations, offering a unique perspective on various aspects of the world.

Documentaries can cover a wide range of topics, from nature and science to politics, culture, and human rights. The way a documentary is narrated and presented can vary considerably, using interviews, archival footage, animations, and reenactments to build its narrative. Documentarians aim not only to expose facts but also to provoke reflection and, in many cases, inspire action or social change.

“Citizenfour” is a documentary directed by Laura Poitras, which premiered in 2014. The film focuses on Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the United States National Security Agency (NSA), who in 2013 leaked a large number of classified documents revealing the existence of mass surveillance programs conducted by the U.S. government and its allies.

The title “Citizenfour” refers to the pseudonym used by Snowden when he first communicated with Poitras and journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill. Through these contacts, Snowden decided to expose the NSA’s practices, which he considered serious violations of privacy and human rights.

The documentary follows Poitras as she meets with Snowden in a hotel room in Hong Kong, where he reveals the extent of global surveillance. Throughout the film, it shows not only the immediate impact of Snowden’s revelations but also the reactions of the public and authorities, as well as the personal consequences for him and his family.

“Citizenfour” premiered at a critical moment in contemporary history when issues of privacy, surveillance, and digital rights were gaining prominence in public discourse. Snowden’s revelations exposed the breadth of the NSA’s surveillance programs, generating a global debate on the balance between national security and individual rights.

The documentary is relevant for several reasons:

Government Transparency and Accountability: “Citizenfour” highlights the importance of transparency in government activities, especially on issues affecting the fundamental rights of citizens. The revelations prompted legal reforms and greater discussions on the need for oversight of intelligence agencies.

Right to Privacy: The documentary foregrounds the erosion of privacy in the digital age. It shows how technology, while offering numerous benefits, can also be used for mass surveillance without people’s knowledge or consent.

Whistleblower Courage and Consequences: Snowden’s story is a testament to the courage of whistleblowers and the severe consequences they can face. His decision to reveal information and subsequent life in exile underscore the ethical and personal dilemmas involved in exposing wrongdoing.

Global Impact: Snowden’s revelations not only affected the United States but also had global repercussions. Several countries reviewed their surveillance policies, and movements for digital rights protection at the international level were initiated.

“Citizenfour” won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2015 and received widespread acclaim for its brave and provocative approach. Beyond its cinematic merits, the documentary remains a crucial piece in the ongoing debate about privacy, security, and freedom in the 21st century.

Who is Edward Snowden?

Edward Snowden is a former contractor for the United States National Security Agency (NSA) and a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), known for leaking classified information in 2013 that revealed extensive global surveillance programs conducted by the NSA and other intelligence agencies.

Brief Biography Birth and Education

Edward Joseph Snowden was born on June 21, 1983, in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, United States. He grew up in a household with a strong tradition of public service; his mother worked at the federal court and his father was a Coast Guard officer.

Career in Intelligence

Snowden began his career working for the CIA as an IT security expert. He later joined the NSA, where he was assigned tasks related to global communications infrastructure.

Work at the NSA

In 2013, while working as a contractor at the NSA through Booz Allen Hamilton in Hawaii, Snowden had access to highly classified information detailing the extent of the U.S. government’s surveillance programs.


In May 2013, Snowden flew to Hong Kong and began sharing documents with journalists like Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Ewen MacAskill, revealing the existence of programs such as PRISM and XKeyscore, which involved the mass collection of electronic communications data worldwide.

Asylum in Russia

Following the leaks, Snowden was charged with espionage and theft of government property by the U.S. government. After a complicated journey seeking asylum, he eventually received temporary refuge in Russia, where he has resided since then.

Motivations and Justification for His Actions

Edward Snowden has explained his motivations and justifications for leaking classified information in various interviews and statements:

Concern for Privacy: Snowden was alarmed by the extent of the NSA’s surveillance on U.S. citizens and people worldwide without their knowledge or consent. He believed these programs violated the rights to privacy and civil liberties guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

Moral Responsibility: Snowden felt a moral responsibility to inform the public about what he perceived as government abuses of power. He believed that citizens had the right to know that their private communications were being intercepted and stored en masse.

Lack of Oversight and Accountability: He argued that the surveillance programs operated with inadequate oversight from Congress and the courts, allowing intelligence agencies to act without accountability. Snowden believed the surveillance system was out of control and needed urgent reform.

Hope for Change: By revealing the information, Snowden hoped to catalyze public and political debate about privacy, surveillance, and digital rights. He sought to provoke legislative and judicial changes that would restrict mass surveillance practices and better protect citizens’ rights.

In an interview with journalist Glenn Greenwald, Snowden expressed: “I don’t want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under.”

The NSA Revelations

In 2013, Edward Snowden exposed a series of mass surveillance programs operated by the United States National Security Agency (NSA) and its international allies. These revelations sparked intense debate about privacy, security, and civil rights in the digital age.

Mass Surveillance Programs Exposed PRISM

This program allowed the NSA to directly access the servers of major internet companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple to collect user information, including emails, chat messages, photos, and videos. PRISM facilitated the gathering of data on foreigners outside the United States, but it also affected U.S. citizens.

XKeyscore: XKeyscore is a data analysis tool that allows NSA analysts to search and analyze vast amounts of internet data collected worldwide. This included emails, browsing history, internet searches, and social media activities. According to Snowden, this tool enabled the NSA to track virtually any online activity without needing a specific court order.

Tempora: This program by the United Kingdom government, in collaboration with the NSA, involved intercepting enormous amounts of data passing through fiber optic cables. The collected information included emails, phone calls, and internet activity of millions of people. Tempora allowed data storage for 30 days for detailed analysis.

MUSCULAR: This program, run jointly with the United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), intercepted data in transit between the global data centers of Google and Yahoo. The NSA could access large volumes of information without needing to interact directly with the companies.

Boundless Informant: This data mapping system allowed the NSA to analyze metadata collected from electronic communications, providing a detailed view of global data collection activity. The program highlighted how many records were collected and from which countries they originated.

Global Impact of the Revelations Privacy Debate

Snowden’s revelations sparked an intense global debate about privacy and surveillance. Many citizens and organizations began questioning how much they were willing to sacrifice their privacy in the name of national security. This debate led to greater scrutiny of governmental surveillance practices and widespread calls for increased transparency and accountability.

In response to the revelations, several countries reviewed their surveillance policies and implemented legal reforms to limit the scope of mass data collection. In the United States, the USA Freedom Act was passed in 2015, which restricted some NSA practices and ended the mass collection of Americans’ phone records.

Impact on Tech Companies

The revelations damaged public trust in tech companies, as many were found to be cooperating with intelligence agencies. As a result, these companies began implementing stricter security and encryption measures to protect user data and restore trust.

International Relations

The revelations also affected diplomatic relations between the United States and other countries. International leaders expressed outrage upon discovering they had been targets of NSA surveillance. This led to diplomatic tensions and efforts by some countries to develop their own communication infrastructures independent of the United States.

Increased Public Awareness

Media coverage of Snowden’s revelations raised public awareness about digital privacy and government surveillance issues. This led to increased use of encryption tools and other methods to protect online privacy among the general public.

Laura Poitras and Her Role in the Story

Laura Poitras is an acclaimed American documentary filmmaker, journalist, and director known for her work on films addressing national security, surveillance, and human rights issues. Her role in revealing the NSA’s mass surveillance programs through her documentary “Citizenfour” was crucial in effectively and impactfully bringing Edward Snowden’s information to the public.

Profile of the Director Birth and Education

Laura Poitras was born on February 2, 1964, in Boston, Massachusetts. She studied at the University of San Francisco and the New School in New York, where she trained in film technique.

Filmmaking Career

Poitras has directed and produced several notable documentaries exploring socially and politically relevant topics. Her most notable works include “My Country, My Country” (2006), which addresses life in Iraq under U.S. occupation, and “The Oath” (2010), which examines the life of a former driver for Osama bin Laden.

Awards and Recognitions

Throughout her career, Poitras has received numerous awards and distinctions, including the Academy Award for Best Documentary for “Citizenfour” in 2015, and the George Polk Award for national security reporting.

The Filming Process and Challenges Faced Initial Contact with Snowden

In January 2013, Poitras received an encrypted email from Edward Snowden, who identified himself under the pseudonym “Citizenfour.” This message initiated a series of encrypted communications in which Snowden revealed his intention to leak classified documents about NSA surveillance programs.

Trip to Hong Kong

In May 2013, Poitras traveled to Hong Kong along with journalist Glenn Greenwald and reporter Ewen MacAskill from The Guardian to meet Snowden. This meeting was the starting point for the filming that would form the backbone of “Citizenfour.”

Filming Under High Security

Poitras faced enormous challenges in ensuring the security of the filming and protecting both Snowden and the involved journalists. She used multiple security measures, including encrypted devices, secure communications, and safe storage of filmed materials.

Tension and Danger

The situation in Hong Kong was tense and dangerous. Snowden was aware that his life would change drastically once the revelations went public. Poitras and her team had to move cautiously to avoid detection by local authorities and other agents who might be looking for them.

Editing and Production

The production of “Citizenfour” continued in Berlin, where Poitras had her operational base. Editing the documentary was a delicate process that required reviewing hours of footage and ensuring that the narrative was coherent, impactful, and truthful. The editing also involved protecting the identities of those involved and handling extremely sensitive information.

Impact and Reception

“Citizenfour” premiered at the New York Film Festival in October 2014 and received widespread acclaim for its bravery, clarity, and relevance. The documentary not only won the Academy Award for Best Documentary but also became a fundamental piece in the global discussion on surveillance and privacy.