Astro Noise: Laura Poitras and the Static of Surveillance

When filmmaker Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald flew to Hong Kong to meet Edward Snowden for the first time, Poitras brought her camera with her. The resulting 2015 Academy-Award winning documentary provides a you-are-there, 100% real-life espionage story unfolding minute by minute before our eyes called “Citizenfour.”

The most uncanny aspect of “Citizenfour”, is the time shift. You are there, in the hotel room, as Edward Snowden releases his story in real time, and moving out of anonymity into the international spotlight before our eyes, even though the events shown onscreen took place a year earlier. The point of view, the tension, the you-are-there is so palpable, you forget it took place in a previous news cycle.

“Citizen Four” is a thriller story writ large. Even though you know the outcome: that Snowden managed to get to safety in an undisclosed location in Russia, was not picked up by the CIA or the FBI despite his branding as a traitor by the United States government. It evokes nail-biting, edge-of-the-seat attentiveness in the telling.

Snowden originally sought out Documentary Director Laura Poitras due to her previous body of work, which includes “My Country, My Country” (2006), about Iraq under U.S. occupation; and “The Oath” (2010), about two men affiliated with Osama bin Laden, one of whom is the first defendant to be tried in the U.S. military tribunals established by the United States Department of Defense. She was not an investigative journalist for a major news site, though immediately contacted her colleague Glenn Greenwald, a reporter for the The Guardian UK.

Despite the risk, Snowden reached out to Poitras due to her track record as a storyteller and free speech advocate. She in turn delivered his request as the anonymous “Citizen Four” to “ensure this information makes it home to the American public.” Clearly, she did even more than that. She controlled a narrative that could have been spun into black and white traitor terrain.

The film presents Edward Snowden, an earnest American citizen, holed up in a Hong Kong hotel, who believes what he is doing is the right thing, full knowing he may end up in prison or worse.

Here is an excerpt from the director’s acceptance speech:

The disclosures that Edward Snowden reveals don’t only expose a threat to our privacy but to our democracy itself. When the most important decisions being made affecting all of us are made in secret, we lose our ability to check the powers that control. Thank you to Edward Snowden for his courage, and for the many other whistleblowers. And I share this with Glenn Greenwald and other journalists who are exposing truth.

As documented in the film, Edward Snowden currently lives under protection in Moscow, where he frequently participates in virtual interviews on free speech, democracy and the virtual space, including last years robotic appearance at TedTalks, “How to Take Back the Internet.”

This week at the Whitney Museum of Art, Laura Poitras marked her museum debut with Astro Noise, her first solo museum exhibition which builds on topics explored in her previous documentary work, including mass surveillance, the war on terror, the U.S. drone program, Guantánamo Bay Prison, occupation, and torture.

In these immersive environments, the audience assumes the role of voyeur, captive, and participant. The title, Astro Noise, is the name Edward Snowden gave to an encrypted file containing evidence of mass surveillance by the National Security Agency that he shared with Poitras in 2013. With seismic historic signficance, it also refers to the faint background disturbance of thermal radiation left over from the Big Bang, said to have created our universe.

The exhibition, includes “O’Say Can You See”, a two-sided doublescreen video installation with close-up footage of New Yorkers’ reactions to the ruins of Ground Zero in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers on one side and surveillance footage of U.S. Intelligence interrogations of suspected terrorists on the other.

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“Disposition Matrix” provides eye-level peep holes for viewing de-classified documents, drone photographs and prisoner footage, bringing us to the discomfort zone of voyeur as participant.


“Bed Down Location,” the most dream-like of the installations, allows viewers to lie down on a platform to view ceiling projected footage of night skies over Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan where U.S. drone strikes are a frequent occurrence. Despite the unsettling soundtrack drawn from drones and their pilot conversations, the piece includes audio collected by NASA of noise from the edge of our universe, and the ceiling, and awe-inspiring skies full of stars moving across in time lapse, with random clouds tracing the skyline. This peaceful feeling dissipates however, when a second video screen in the next gallery over reveals infrared imagery of participants watching the bed piece footage: we are being watched as we watched, surveyed as we survey.

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“Astro Noise” continues Laura Poitras’ rigorous questioning of the ways we view, are viewed and the ways our movements, GPS coordinates, buying patterns and social media activity are translated into data by corporate and government entities, often without our awareness.

What are your thoughts on the ways we are being surveyed in the post-9/11 world? What forms of intervention can take place within the dialogues of critique and disclosure about these practices? And will these technologies help us in the quest for global peace, free speech and equality?

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  1. Tara Shanahan

    Laura Poitras’ work is so important because no one else is really talking about this on this level. When I saw Citizen Four I became really paranoid about the internet and technology. There’s one point in the movie when he’s in the hotel and the phone rings after they tap into something. It was so eerie. It’s always surprising to me that people are shocked when they find out about government surveillance. I’ve found that people have this idea that even though it’s on the internet it’s private. Like the illusion of privacy settings on Facebook. You can easily find information about people elsewhere.
    I also saw Astro Noise at the Whitney and the part that stuck with me was at the end how you could see the people in the first room. At first I was moving in front of the screen to see if it was just a heat censor monitor, but I didn’t see my figure. As I watched I realized they were the people in a different room. Her takeaway is that they’re always watching. The little peepholes were also interesting because you had to maneuver around the slits in the wall to see the whole picture. With technology government transparency is becoming more available to us, which is important. We should know if we’re being watched and monitored so that it can be stopped. The government doesn’t need to know when I’m on Facebook and when I post a photo on Instagram. They can spend my tax dollars elsewhere.

    • Kathleen Sweeney

      Poitras is one of the few using her platforms to speak out about surveillance. And she includes the documents of her own government surveillance file due to her documentary topics and her travels in the Middle East. So glad you saw the show!

    • John Wilson

      “Like the illusion of privacy settings on Facebook. You can easily find information about people elsewhere.” Last year I decided to start removing content from my Facebook page. There wasn’t anything wrong with my photos but I didn’t like that strangers could see people that I knew and loved. There was someone in my office who said I was being paranoid. I said “Oh really. Let’s just see about that…” after a couple of minutes, I was able to pull up pictures of him… his wife…his children… on a facebook search because one of his friends was my friend.

      If you know how to link the chain, I wonder what else you could find.

  2. Anna Mackie

    Before reading and now responding to this week’s Virtual Media Lab, I had never heard of Laura Poitras or CitizenFour. Despite this, I have always found the power of the internet frightening. It is terrifying to acknowledge the fact that because of technological advances, there is no such thing as privacy in present-day society.
    I can not help but compare this to 1984- Big Brother is always watching. Laura Poitras’ film, Citizen Four, seems to be a documentary that will make internet users more aware of the information they upload and share to the internet. However, the information that is known about us as individuals is almost out of our control. I don’t have much to contribute to this week’s post because I am still so uninformed about the elements of this discussion but I definitely plan to watch the documentary and visit the exhibit at the Whitney.

    • John Wilson

      The best way to break a fear is to get informed. Learn as much as you can to protect yourself and those you love from internet hounds. I tend to recycle what is being said and am less app to share moments of my life any more. I would rather live them then share them. As for Laura’s exhibit, I would highly recommend since it is a real eye opener.

      • Kathleen Sweeney

        The more informed you are about these issues, the better equipped you will be to transcend fear. You can master your social media privacy settings, be mindful of where and how much time you spend online, which politicians you support on these issues and why. On a more global level can help you to become more active in the worldwide movement for privacy rights. I highly recommend watching “Citizenfour”. At very least, watch the trailer!

  3. Valeria Maxera

    At first, I wasn’t interested much in this article until I began investigating about Laura Poitras. From there, everything began to be smoother and more interesting. The Internet has always been a very scary, and unknown world. It reminds me much of the galaxy and universe. Of how big is it, and how much information does it hold. There is just so many things unknown and so much evil around, it is obvious that anything related to the internet must be evil.
    Citizen Four, is a movie I have heard a lot before, but I’m so scared to watch it, that I have avoided it in many terms. Scared because, the real world is very dark, and sometimes being away from that helps me, be less anxious. There is so much power the government, and higher powerful organizations that can control so much of our lifes, that it’s scary to just think about what they could be seeing, or even researching about us. I think we are being surveyed in a dangerous way. It is important for us to have our own privacy, and not have others be looking into what we do. We should take back the internet, and state necessary rules for when the government is able to look into your stuff, or even look into your surveillance camera.

  4. John Wilson

    The internet is a bottomless pit of information with many gateways in. We are creating not only a collective consciousness; we are mapping the past and present but to what end and purpose? Edward Snowden made a choice to awaken in humanity the reality (virtual at times) they live in which came at the cost of being labeled a traitor. I reject people’s opinions when it comes to their need to pass judgment on anyone without knowing the full story. To me he was someone who was trying to do the right thing which resulted in him exposing a truth.

    Sadly we live in a society that is full of half-truths and opinions which also impact or hinder political and societal change. It is getting harder and harder to weed out all of the rhetoric in ‘the news’. But through it all, we give ourselves freely to the internet (as sacrificial lambs) to be seen in the abyss of it all. We want to be heard, noticed. Somehow being a celebrity is more important than being a humanitarian.

    I got to see Laura Poitras exhibit at the Whitney and it was very profound. The world of surveillance has shifted. Drones invade the skies while the internet, microfibers act like nerves that jump when someone pokes at them. Privacy doesn’t exist anymore because we allow the invasion to manifest in to our lives. A picture, a song, a tweet, emails, videos, gifs all simulate our special (not so special) little worlds. But when do we stop…or can we? This social addiction has taken hold and we are reminded (by people like Laura and Edward) there is a price to be paid for using the gateway to the future.

    Just as important as it is to be aware of the physical world, it is equally as important to look at the digital world we are creating. Life has a beginning and an end but where the internet stands, it truly is immortal. Long after all of us are gone, what do we want our civilization to know about us? We have the power to shape and control this ever growing beast. What will you feed it?

    • Kathleen Sweeney

      Such a great question: “Life has a beginning and an end but where the internet stands, it truly is immortal. Long after all of us are gone, what do we want our civilization to know about us? We have the power to shape and control this ever growing beast. What will you feed it?” What do we want our virtual legacy to me…what messages, imprints, images do we want to remain in the infosphere?

      • Christina

        This brings up a topic that should be addressed as well as change, “internet clutter”. Because the digital world is indeed “immortal”, how do we want to be remembered? By retweeting and reposting all of the same images or posts that were already done ten thousand times over? Everything has already been done before. That does not mean that social media is not powerful. In fact, it can create the CHANGE this world needs so badly. However when we post, we should do it with purpose to create the world we want to live in and create a meaningful future.

        • John Wilson

          “By retweeting and reposting all of the same images or posts that were already done ten thousand times over? Everything has already been done before.”

          Off this statement, I feel that all of us are starting to feel the “Groundhogs day’ reality playing out on the internet. When things are unique and raw, fresh to the eye it makes me think. But when videos are cut, uttered, reimagined, resider over and over I feel like I am caught in a nightmare. Have we turned our world in to a copy of what it use to be…authentic?

          • Christina Murray

            I think we are in a cycle that is constantly evolving, yet being regurgitated at the same time. As seen with food, we are going back to our roots and repeating history. What is authentic anymore???

  5. Yiwen Li

    Before I review this week’s discussion, I have never watched “CitizenFour” before. What can I see in this movie is that director brought camera records Edward Snowden’s experience of Hong Kong in that time. Starting by the US NSA surveillance scandal, the show is a group portrait, in which all parties are involved. In “CitizenFour” people can see whistleblower has very human side. He also has nervousness, but poorly disguised effort to even feel the way that “I am gonna make it worse.” Then you know him as an individual sacrifice. When Snowden’s parents came to stage, the audience applauded tribute. A place in the freest country on the least free stories. This is only my point of view.

  6. Rhea Goyal

    Internet being the key factor of connectivity today holds several loopholes, there are several backdoors to all the information that is created and shared through the use of internet. On the internet even with the high privacy settings we are not able to successfully privatize our information that is shared. For example, if one friend of mine likes my status and discusses it with another friend whom I have blocked my information sharing from, gets to know what has been shared. This is when I feel snapchat has a great quality of a few second sharing of pictures and info and that if sreenshot. The sender gets the notification. It is a great platform to discuss further.

    “When the most important decisions being made affecting all of us are made in secret, we lose our ability to check the powers that control.” This statement made by the director of Citizen Four really caught my attention and I thought about how powerful and true this statement is. How would you feel if you found out that the internet collected data off of your searches and that is how they taper your ads. For example if you saw a dress on forever 21, don’t you find yourself seeing that website and that dress on the side ads of Facebook or other websites you visit. If people have the ability to track your searches, would getting into your phone or keeping a GPS track on you be hard? Nonetheless, besides this being a stalking act it could also be beneficial if the other party keeping track on you had your best interest at heart. If not then the secret service could take you down at any minute without anyone else finding out. Is this why Edward Snowden was held as a traitor to the country because he had to let this sort of sensitive surveillance out? Do you think they were dark secrets that in turn were harmful news to the public, was it a valid break for the trust invested in him. This brings me to the point, is the Internet just a means of intrusion on life and information?

    • Jon Wilson

      “For example if you saw a dress on forever 21, don’t you find yourself seeing that website and that dress on the side ads of Facebook or other websites you visit. If people have the ability to track your searches, would getting into your phone or keeping a GPS track on you be hard?”

      Targeted marketing is something that not only won’t go away, it has evolved beyond your computer. take a look at the future….very Minority Report -

      Here is a interactive system in the making –

  7. Szu-Chen Doleon

    I’ve saw the interview “NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden: ‘I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things’ “( two years ago. Frankly speaking, I’m not surprised at all. A country, which needs to protect their people, is very likely to do something might invade the people’s privacy. In my opinion, although, United States is a free country, which we have the right to speak freely, the country also has the right to protect us. We still maintain our right of privacy unless we’re trying to threat others lives or affect the public rights(for example, terrorist attack or officials corruption.)

  8. Anika Pivarnik

    The advent of the Internet has become a paradox in modern society: the Internet facilitates unprecedented dialogue and connect between people across the world, however it is also a hotbed for potential data encryption. The other day I was thinking about how many apps on my phone use my location. It’s astounding to think how easily either the government or a private company could immediately track my exact location. In my opinion, one of the greatest forms of terrorism in the 21st century is going to be technological warfare. Whether it be the American people rebelling against the government for breaching their privacy, or a foreign terrorist group shutting off Internet connection, the Internet has dangerous potential.
    I really liked how in the TED Talk Snowden was asked why it matters if the government has surveillance on the Internet citizens. To be honest, when I first heard about Snowden’s whistleblowing years ago, I was angry that the government lied and hid their tracking tactics, but I was asking myself the same question, “If the information is being used for the right reasons, why does it matter that others can see what I do?” Snowden had an excellent rebuttal to that question. It’s true that you never know how information can be used against you, even if you think that you’re not doing anything wrong. Additionally, the information can easily fall into the wrong hands, whether it be due to a hacker, terrorist group, or a foreign government.

    • John Wilson

      “In my opinion, one of the greatest forms of terrorism in the 21st century is going to be technological warfare.”

      I completely agree with you on this statement. As important as it is to learn about and use technology, it is equally is as important to not forget about how things use to be done. If ever there was a collapse of the digital world or power…how would humanity survive? We know how to send emails, write a blog, use computers, interact on social media but in the real world, what are we giving up (horticulture, cooks, construction, etc.)?

  9. Chloe Wang

    I have always thought that the internet is a powerful place. It lets us share information and connect with people all around the world, but it is also extremely public. Anything shared online can be seen by anyone. Even if your setting is set to private, there are still ways for people to retrieve that private information. This is why I always think about the things I post before I share it. And, people always say that even if you delete something on the internet, it does not mean it is gone completely. It could still be found online somewhere, which is scary. Not only that but, the fact that the government has so much control over the internet and how they are able to track what we are seeing. For example, like in North Korea, the people are only able to see what the government wants them to see. The other websites on the internet are blocked. So, they only learn about the things that are made available to them. I find this really interesting because that is why they know so little about the outside world, because they do not have much access to it. But, I definitely think that the government should not have so much control in that they are able to invade peoples’ privacy.

    • Kathleen Sweeney

      The issues of privacy and security are extremely complex, and require extremely well-informed leadership decisions in the technology sector. Apple’s recent decision to make public the debate about the FBI request for a “back door” key to all cell phones is a perfect example of this complexity.

  10. Madison Porter

    It is very interesting to hear what Snowden has to say and his perspective. I had only heard of the story on the news and didn’t really read into it. He talks about a lot of astonishing points about the way our security system works.
    We are definitely being monitored more so than before 9/11, but I had no clue that everything we search for on the internet can be seen by government around the entire world. I guess I would have to agree with Snowden about having our websites and browsers encrypted. That seems like one of the only ways we can hold on to our privacy and rights. I personally don’t mind the lack of security. I don’t have anything to hide, but he does make a good point of saying that “rights matter because you never know when you’re going to need them”.
    It’s quite astounding that Chairman Dianne Feinstein had no idea that 2,776 abuses had occurred and that all the calls in D.C. had been interrupted at one point until the Washington Post contacted her. That incident just shows us that the lack of security and privacy is a real issue in this country. Human communications are hardly being protected in this country and it’s a real problem.

  11. Christina Murray

    Citizen four is an intense film which sparks a very powerful and heated discussion on surveillance. I watched the documentary when it was released and could not believe this is real life. I am not ignorant, as I know that in the digital world we live in, we are ALWAYS being watched. And those “privacy” settings that people hold so dearly to their hearts, really only create a false sense of assurance for the user. Because we all know (or should), there are governments (as well as extremely knowledgeable people) out there who can find the information if they want it. Creating awareness in this issue is important. I was just in the city last week and I am very regretful that I was unable to see this show. Laura Poitras is very talented and I would have loved to see this installation on mass surveillance. It is interesting to hear other people’s views on the show.

  12. shikun liu

    The movie Citizen Four throws us a hot debate which has not yet reached a conclusion. In the film, a lawyer said that according to the laws of the United States, to reaveal the secret of the security agencies will be charged for high treason, however, there is no specific provision in the law. If it is not disclosed to the enemy, but it is disclosed for the public interest, then how would the person be sentenced? According to the stipulations in the letter of the law, I’m afraid still constitute treason. Many Americans see Snowden as a true patriot, but the government regards him as a traitor, so how to define Snowden? Is he doing something morally correct? It’s really hard to define. But above all, it’s great to hear Snowden’s speech and his viewpoint about surveillance. We’re on internet almost everyday, and indeed we have to be careful about what to put on the internet, as we are being watched.
    I haven’t get the chance to see Laura poitras exhibition yet, but from the post I could feel that it is really interesting and worth going.

  13. Kathleen Sweeney

    Really great that so many of you were able to visit the exhibition. I went back again last night and found the “Bed Down Location” piece even more poignant.

  14. Morgan Gildersleeve

    Wow, what an interesting subject! Before reading this article and watching this Ted Talk, i had never heard of Laura Poitras, Edward Snowden , or “Citizen Four.” However, after learning more about the subject thanks to this week’s Virtual Media Lab, it is safe to say that my eyes have been opened to the reality of the online world and technology. I can truthfully say, although it was something that was in the back of my mind, i was definitely delusional to the reality of government surveillance. The internet is a very tricky place when it comes to the idea of privacy. You think that a simple deletion of an online conversation, a “private” setting on Facebook or Instagram, and a silly “clear history” button on your internet browser will keep everything you do online private… but clearly that is not the case—and it’s incredibly eerie. I remember watching a short film based on a real story that connects to this subject. The video was shot from the point of view of a hacker that had tapped into the camera on her laptop. Every time her laptop was open, he was watching her every move— from her showering, to changing, and talking to her friends and relatives on the phone. Even after watching that, my thoughts were that it could never happen to me. Even though i was aware of government surveillance, and the possibility of a stranger hacking into my life through the computer, i was in fact delusional. I think that we are living in a world that is so immersed in the internet world, that we are blind to the fact that nothing we do on the internet is private. I consider myself capable of clear, sound reasoning, however even I find myself delusional to the realities of the internet. It honestly makes me sick to think about. On another note, however, i find Laura Poitras’ work to be incredibly thoughtful and eye-opening. I think that this is a subject that many people are either unaware of, or simply don’t want to face as a reality—and that is exactly why Poitras’ work is so important!

  15. Kristi T

    This reminds me of the recent news stories I’ve been hearing of the court issues with apple in unlocking phones. I was referencing once specific news story that I couldn’t recall the details of (still cannot) in which I pulled open a google search with “Apple phone unlocking case” to my surprises there are numerous trials dealing with FBI in which they are coaxing apple into allowing phones in the assistants of certain cases. This ties directly into the idea of how we are being surveyed post 9/11 and the role in which technology plays in our lives.
    Now I have not seen Citizenfour, the most I know about this situation is hearing Snowden’s name in the news. I was not following up on the conversation much but this article had me once again engaging in thoughts I sometimes try to avoid. These thoughts pertaining to the security and sensitivity of the internet. We engage and interact with the internet so much and sometimes on such a personal level that it’s hard to grasp that it isn’t personal at all. Even with “privacy” it’s on a public domain that anyone can trace back with the right technologies which is a frightening idea. (Hence my avoidance to said topic)
    The government surveillance is a tricky topic to tackle, one I normally do not try to interrupt. But in times where it is crucial for information I think it is appropriate for the government to take a step into the position of privacy for the well being of others.

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