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Surveillance and privacy: Hollywood’s new hot topics?

Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange and Daniel Bruehl as Daniel Domscheit-Berg

(Photo: AP)

Films on Wikileaks and Edward Snowden are on their way to our screens, and a new documentary shines a light on surveillance online. Has Hollywood’s found its new hot topic? Emma Jones investigates.

If NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden hasn’t done enough to highlight the issue of government surveillance, then Hollywood is eager to finish the job. Just as the Iraq war led to a spate of filmmaking documenting the conflict, now the movie industry has a new hot topic to address – public privacy.

The story of Julian Assange’s Wikileaks revelations has been made into The Fifth Estate, a film starring Star Trek’s Benedict Cumberbatch. It will be released in the US this October – comfortably in time for awards season contention. Meanwhile, whatever happens to Snowden, his one assurance is that he will, sooner or later, be a movie star – his tale is expected to spark Hollywood’s most furious bidding war in years.The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, who broke the news, has already secured a publishing deal for his memoirs .

But if Snowden, Assange and the secrets they exposed still seem remote to many, a documentary is also being released across the US this month that claims that every online search we make is being recorded, every Facebook status we post can be monitored – and this information can be kept in perpetuity. Californian journalist and filmmaker Cullen Hoback started work on Terms and Conditions May Apply a couple of years ago, because, he claims, public surveillance is “the greatest crisis of our times”.

“For hundreds of years we’ve worked towards the point where privacy is considered a fundamental right and that is now being taken away from us. The potential for misuse and what that can mean for the world is really damn frightening.” Exploring how the terms for using search engines like Google and social media sites like Facebook have changed in the wake of the Patriot Act following 9/11, 32-year-old Hoback argues that it is an ‘unfair trade’ to hand over in his words, “vast swathes of personal information”, in return for online access.

“When you use Facebook, you’re handing over images of yourself and the people you are with, and that information is stored. What if you happen to be pictured at a peaceful protest, say? So now both Facebook, and the government have access to information such as you being at a protest, who you were with and what you were protesting about.

“Laws change, and if that information is stored permanently it could be used to punish you in the future, for something you may or may not do, just like in the film Minority Report.”

On the doorstep

Case studies in Terms and Conditions May Apply describe how people, including a child, made throwaway comments on Facebook and Twitter – “looking forward to a drink before I go and destroy America!”,“Obama had better watch out now Osama Bin Laden is dead” – that brought the FBI and SWAT teams to their homes, and even to a school. More proof, Hoback claims, that social networking is under as much scrutiny by the US National Security Agency as the phone surveillance operation that Edward Snowden exposed.

“When I was making the film, I couldn’t say directly that the government has access to Facebook servers and while there may be some debate, as far as I am concerned, they do. These companies can’t say that they’re providing the government with access –it would be terrible PR.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has made no official response to the new documentary’s claims, but after failing to secure an interview with the social networking site’s founder, Hoback surreptitiously recorded himself ‘doorstepping’ Zuckerberg outside his home – to give him, the director says, a taste of his own medicine.

“It was brave of Edward Snowden to come out and say these things,” he adds, “Because it’s only when it becomes personal to people – that their phone conversations are being tapped, that their social media information is being stored indefinitely and it’s legal – that it becomes real.”

No Stone unturned

Veteran director Oliver Stone would agree with Hoback – according to him, Snowden is “a hero to the whole world” and his story, told through film is “one of the most important of the century.” Speaking at the Karlovy Vary film festival in the Czech Republic, where he was accepting a lifetime achievement award, Stone said that it was “too soon” to know if he would direct any movie of Snowden’s whistleblowing activities.  Stone has made films on 9/11 (World Trade Center) and George Bush (W), His latest project is a TV series , The Untold History of the United States, that focuses on under-reported events – although the Snowden affair could hardly fit into that category.

“It would be fascinating to make,” he says, “because Edward Snowden has performed a service for everyone – to reveal that we are all victims, that we are all spied upon by an Orwellian Big Brother, the United States.”

“However, when it’s made, let’s not sentimentalise his story over the real issue that he’s sacrificed himself for – the problem is governments spying on its populaces.”

According to trade magazine The Hollywood Reporter, a script on Snowden is already in the hands of the Los Angeles based talent agency, William Morris Endeavour – although a low-budget version of his story has already been uploaded to You Tube by a group of amateur filmmakers based in Hong Kong.  At five minutes in duration, it can hardly compete with anything Hollywood will go on to produce, but Edward Snowden – Short Film still attracted a quarter of a million hits in the month since it appeared.

Nevertheless, the names of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden don’t inspire everyone in Hollywood, most famously Harvey Weinstein, who says he doesn’t agree with Snowden’s actions. The makers of The Fifth Estate may be relieved that Assange is in no position to attend the world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, as in January this year he claimed that the version of the screenplay he had seen “was a hostile work; a serious attack on Wikileaks and the integrity of its staff.” Scriptwriters say that Assange “ has not seen” a final version.

Nor does a hot topic in the media guarantee that the film will be similarly well-received among Hollywood’s great and good; The Guardian newspaper points out that although Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s film about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, amassed more than $100m at the box office, it translated into only one Academy Award, in a technical category. This could be an even more delicate topic to cover.

“None of us are making these films to be popular,” points out Hoback. “Probably quite the opposite. But there’s a duty to show the public that now is the time they have to choose: do they want less privacy in the name of greater security? And if so, what will that look like in the future?”

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