After Snowden: Film Considers the Future of Mass Surveillance

The documentary ‘I Spy’ examines the efficacy of bulk data collection in fighting terrorism.
Oct 5, 2016·
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

While sitting in a London hotel, documentarian Justin Pemberton started to compose an email regarding his film on mass surveillance—and the government’s ability to intercept digital communication—when all of a sudden, his computer started acting strangely.

“The text just started deleting in front of me. I wasn’t even touching the computer,” he told TakePart. “It completely freaked me out.”

Pemberton will never know for certain whether his disappearing email was a result of a computer glitch or interference from a government agency looking into his activity because of the content in his film I Spy. The interactive digital documentary examines the state of global surveillance and how perception and action change when people know that private information can be easily accessed.

“That’s the idea, isn’t it?” the New Zealand director and producer said. “You can pretty quickly become paranoid. Sometimes computers do funny things. But at the same time, it could be—it could be something more sinister.”

The documentary unpacks the scope and power of the Five Eyes, an alliance comprising the intelligence agencies of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U.K., and the U.S. Developed following World War II, the Five Eyes alliance has grown with the digital age and is capable of intercepting every phone call, email, internet search, and social media post around the globe.

In 2013, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the U.S. agency’s data collection and surveillance tactics. The Snowden leaks brought wide attention to the ease with which the government can collect private information and led to some reforms, including the end of bulk collection of domestic phone calls. But access to digital correspondence or international calls is still just a keystroke away.

“We haven’t really talked beyond the fact that the NSA can turn on your phone and listen to you or track you,” Pemberton said. “Beyond that, what does this mean in terms of the way we’re going to live and the consequences for power and democracy?”

Rather than focus solely on the Five Eyes alliance’s capabilities and faults, I Spy offers perspectives from both leaders in surveillance and privacy advocates in an attempt to find a balance between safety and freedom.

Some proponents of mass surveillance say it is a necessary counterterrorism tool, but detractors say the breadth of information collection makes it impossible to analyze effectively.

There are roughly 1.2 million people on the Five Eyes terror watch list, according to documents released by Snowden.

“No intelligence agency or organization has the resources or the capacity to go through all of that material and never will,” Rhys Ball, a former spy for the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service, explains in the film. “It’s not the needle in the haystack. It’s the needle in the haystack of needles.”

Attackers involved in the November 2015 Paris attacks as well as the attack in Brussels in March were known by local and international intelligence agencies to have ties to terror organizations. Even when the intelligence is sound, the sheer volume of data makes it challenging to analyze.

That’s assuming the intelligence is accurate. Pemberton warned that even computer systems have biases that can turn innocent people into targets.

Intelligence agencies use algorithms to highlight individuals with possible connections to terror organizations by matching patterns and word use. They also analyze the person’s racial identity, age, gender, and educational achievements. Artificial intelligence algorithms have routinely been found to contain biases. A recent international beauty contest judged by A.I. selected predominantly white or pale-skinned winners. A Microsoft chatbot released in March adapted white supremacist language.

In the realm of counterterrorism, the consequences of racial bias are far more severe than crowning a white woman a beauty queen. Pemberton said intelligence agencies should recognize the implicit bias that makes its way into their algorithms and devise a system of checks and balances.

Despite the flaws, Pemberton sees some positive potential in bulk data collection—depending on who controls the data.

“Maybe data should be collectively owned and everybody should have access to it, and then we can all use it for invention,” he said. “This thing is never going backwards. It can’t be unwound. We’re going to have to learn to live with [mass surveillance] and adapt with it and figure out how it can be harnessed in a way that isn’t going to be detrimental.”