Divorce Your Metadata:

A conversation between
Laura Poitras and Kate Crawford
In 2015, at Rhizome’s Seven on Seven event at the New Museum, Poitras and Crawford were invited to give the opening keynote address. They had an on-stage conversation that spanned the cultural imaginaries of surveillance, affect and emotion, and the physical effects of producing work on surveillance. The week beforehand, Poitras and Crawford travelled to China to observe the collaboration between Ai Weiwei and Jacob Appelbaum - one of the collaborations for Seven on Seven. Poitras created a short film based on this time in Weiwei’s studio, called The Art of Dissent. This transcript has been edited and some topics have been expanded upon by the authors. It was originally published in print form by the cyberfeminist group Deep Lab as part of their residency at the New Museum's Ideas City Festival in May. This layout is based on the zine's design by Maral Pourkazemi and Ingrid Burrington.
Kate Crawford: It’s a pleasure to be here with you, particularly on a year when Seven on Seven is focused on surveillance and affect in art and technology. I was thinking about CITIZENFOUR and the whole trilogy of your films since 2001. You’ve managed to take this invisible, pervasive infrastructure of surveillance – what the sociologists Haggerty and Ericsson call the “surveillant assemblage” – and you’ve made it feel material and emotional. In your work we see how surveillance functions in a political and technical sense, but it also becomes something that we really care about. It’s personal.

You’ve been asked many questions over the past year about the legal and policy implications of mass surveillance. But I want to do something else; I want to ask you about the cultural and artistic representations of surveillance and how they’ve affected you. Are there particular films, books and art works you’ve encountered over your life that have changed the way you think about surveillance?

Laura Poitras: Yes, there are many. When I first decided I was going to make a film on surveillance it was before any whistleblowers had come forward. It was before Snowden. It was also before the ‘NSA Four’ – Thomas Drake, William Binney, J. Kirk Wiebe and Edward Loomis – went public in 2011. I talked to a lot of people and everybody said it’s a bad idea to make a documentary film about surveillance because it is hard to visualize. It is both abstract and very much a mental state. When you think about the great literature and films about surveillance, most are fictionalized. The work that had the most influence on me is Orwell’s 1984. I read it first when I was a teenager and it was etched into my memory. I can’t think of another book I’ve had such vivid memories of. I re-read it in the winter of 2013 when Edward Snowden first started emailing me. I was also reading Cory Doctorow’s Homeland. They were a perfect pair to read because of how they capture themes of surveillance, paranoia, and the state.

There’s a scene in 1984 that resonated with the experience of making CITIZENFOUR. Early in the novel, Winston Smith decides to keep a journal. He first needs to find a space where he could write – a space that cannot be seen by the camera in his apartment. He finds a space in the corner of a room, and then once he sits there, he freezes. He realizes that he has internalized the surveillance state so much that he actually can’t articulate what he wants to write. That experience was something that came up for me because I was also trying to find spaces where I could work and avoid the surveillance state. When Ed first contacted me I knew enough about the NSA to know that it was a powerful adversary and that I needed to try to find a corner of the room, or a corner of the internet, where I wouldn’t be surveilled. I had a computer that I bought with cash, I used the pro-privacy Tails operating system. To communicate I would leave my apartment in order to sever my true identity from the anonymous email accounts I was using to correspond with “citizenfour.” I’d go to different public wifi places to go online. Throughout the course of my correspondence with Snowden we “divorced metadata” several times. That is Ed’s phrase, to “divorce metadata.” We would get onto one anonymous channel of communication, we would talk there, and then we would sever that one and create a new one. So if one channel was compromised it wouldn’t lead back to the previous channels. I moved in March 2013, and I stopped turning my cellphone on in the apartment. It was another way to divorce metadata (my location from my true name).

One of the reasons Ed encouraged us to divorce metadata was to protect me in case I wanted to back out from reporting. He wanted to give me an out. Given the risks he was taking it is pretty extraordinary he was concerned about me.

The other thing that Orwell captures in 1984 is how in a surveillance state you can start to internalize and censor yourself, and that has happened to me while doing NSA reporting. I’ll start typing on my computer and I’ll realize it’s connected to the internet and that my writing – my thought process – could be monitored. Which isn’t to say I believe governments are that interested in monitoring everything I do, but I know they have the capability. And once you’ve allowed that idea to enter your mind, then it becomes like the Winston Smith predicament of not being able to articulate your thoughts because the state has become internalized. It’s similar to the kind of internalization of control that Bentham discovered with the Panopticon. So in order to write I would go offline.

KC: Perhaps this is where art and culture can attempt to intervene in some of these circuits, the internalized processes around what can we say, what we can think. In what ways have you seen the cultural conversation change, as being distinct from the political or journalistic conversation, about mass surveillance and the state?

LP: There is a marked difference in how we view surveillance before and after Snowden came forward. There were a lot of people who were warning about surveillance before Snowden. That included Jacob Appelbaum, Julian Assange, and the NSA four. A lot of people were saying things that were very alarming, and I think that most people just thought they were paranoid. Now they have the unfortunate pleasure of saying “I told you so.” Not only were they right, but they actually underestimated what the intelligence agencies are doing. So even though people haven’t given up their smartphones, I think there is an awareness that your phone is a potential tracking device, and your computer is connected to a grid that is being surveilled. We have different relationships to these networked objects now, which doesn’t mean that we have given them up, but we think about them differently.

KC: That seems right. I’m curious about the psychological impact of that awareness – given that the theme of the event this year is about different kinds of affect – from empathy to disgust. You’ve been on watch lists for many years and recently you’ve been living with a very stressful project in CITIZENFOUR. What have been the lived experiences of this for you, the physical and emotional impact of researching and making films about surveillance?

LP: My work tries to bridge the divide between our intellectual understanding and an emotional understanding of things like torture, occupation, and surveillance. That is the goal of the work. Making the work, on the personal level, I’ve had many reactions, including physical. I developed tinnitus while making CITIZENFOUR – a loud ringing in my head. It began when I started getting emails from Snowden. At first I thought someone might be pointing a laser at my apartment, so I went to another location and it was still be there. After a few locations I had to accept that it was not the location, but actually in my head. It was a stress response. The ringing would get louder or quieter depending on the stress level. Thankfully it stopped when I finished CITIZENFOUR. I also had physical responses while making my previous films. After making the film in Iraq I developed insomnia. My body’s reaction to being in a war zone was to only sleep on the surface. When I was working in Yemen making The Oath I developed this eye twitch. I would land at the airport in Sana’a and my eye would start twitching.

KC: Your previous projects were clearly grounded in a shared reality – a political and social reality – that you could see for yourself. But with CITIZENFOUR, there must have been a feeling where you were thinking: “This can’t be real.” Particularly when Ed first contacted you, was there a moment where you thought this can’t actually be a true story, I’ve slipped into some kind of strange reality where things are more fictional than real?

LP: No, not really, because my imagination wouldn’t have come up with this story. I respect fiction writers who have such expansive imaginations to create universes and narratives plots twists. I’m more along for the ride, documenting things unfolding in the world. I’ve been asked if I borrowed from the thriller genre. And the answer is no, I wasn’t borrowing, there really was a mysterious person who started emailing me out of the blue telling me crazy shit, and to meet in a far away place…. Storytelling is all based on human experience. It’s all about how do you understand the human condition. The genre of the thriller emerges from human experience. I just use non-fiction for my storytelling.

KC: At last year’s Seven on Seven I spoke about the anxieties of surveillance: both on the part of the surveillers and the surveilled. But there is a pleasure in surveillance too, isn’t there? The kind of pleasure that comes from being able to have an extraordinary view into people’s lives from a 30,000 foot perspective. Some of the data scientists I have spoken to describe this kind of power and the sense of a rush that they get when they engage with enormous data sets that reveal patterns in the lives of others. And, as we know, Uber has the ability to show where individuals are travelling all around the city, with their names and locations, which they like to show off at private functions and parties. They call it “God view”, which seems ironic in a host of unintended ways. So there’s a real sense of power and pleasure that comes with seeing into the world in this unidirectional manner: seeing while remaining unseen. And I imagine that NSA analysts must experience something similar. I’m interested to hear how you’ve encountered those issues around power and pleasure in surveillance in your own work as a filmmaker?

LP: True, as a non-fiction filmmaker I surveil people, and I love doing it. So I can relate in that sense. But its consensual in my circumstance, whereas when the state is doing it, it’s not. But I do think that there is a difference between being in the role of the watched and the watcher. It is a power dynamic. State surveillance is about control and the controlling of populations, and in the cultural realm as a filmmaker, there’s also a level of power and control. This came up in the piece that I just filmed in China with Jake Appelbaum and Ai Weiwei where we were all surveilling each other. It was very interesting because each of us have the experience of being surveilled, and were all surveilling each other with our cameras, phones, polaroids etc. There was a very interesting kind of echoing. I think there’s a way in which surveillance is about power, and counter-surveillance is a form of resistance. So if you think of the photography of Trevor Paglen, where he’s locating and photographing the places we’re not supposed to see, that the government wants to keep hidden from us, I think they are an act of resistance. He is exposing and reclaiming a power that the state wants to keep to itself.

KC: So which other artists do you think represent these connections between power and pleasure in surveillance? It brings to mind the classic work of Sophie Calle and The Address Book, where she found an address book of a stranger, which she photocopied and returned to the owner anonymously. Then she tracked down all of the people who were represented in that book and interviewed them as a way to build a picture of the owner without ever meeting him. She generated a very intimate portrait through the address book as the initial form of metadata.

LP: It’s a great piece – I wouldn’t feel so great if it was my address book. Did the owner of the address book..?

KC: Unsurprisingly, he was very angry.

LP: I’m sure he was!

KC: He threatened to sue for invasion of privacy. And when he discovered there was a nude photograph of Sophie Calle, he demanded that the French newspaper that circulated her work also publish the nude photograph.

LP: I don’t think I would have been able to make that work, which is contradictory because as a work of art I find it very powerful. Would you have done it?

KC: I don’t think I would, but the questions Calle faced in the 1980s when she made that work have intensified. This is where it all gets particularly fascinating because there is a whole generation of artists who are working with surveillance tech right now. They are doing so in order to provoke us to think about technology, but they are walking a similar line to the one Calle walked. This can be extremely powerful, but it can raise hard questions. For example, there’s the work of Julian Oliver who has used StingRays to capture people’s phone data when they are in a gallery space. I’m also thinking of James Bridle and his surveillance balloon – flying a giant balloon with surveillance cameras pointed downwards Peckham, London – one of the areas where rioting occurred in 2011. While there are lines of questioning that artists are exploring with these technologies, they also must confront that they are also surveilling the already-surveilled. What do you think of the ethics of surveillance art? Do you think it’s a case of that old problem that the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house?

LP: I feel like the whole point of art is that is that it is subtle and everyone’s going to have a different take on it. So what I find crosses a line morally or ethically is something somebody else won’t. I think art should provoke. But I do think it’s a complicated terrain, and I do think consent has to be factored in, and whether or not the people being subjected to the surveillance have consented.

KC: Exactly. Otherwise it runs the risk of being what Allison Burtch has called ‘cop art’. So how do artists deal with the question of consent? This is something that I know you’re wrestling with in your upcoming Whitney show in 2016. When people enter a gallery is that a form of giving consent? Does that really give the artist free rein to extract data from your devices? Or from your body?

LP: I’ll give you an example. In 2012 I did a piece at the Whitney as part of the biennial. It was a collaboration with Jacob Appelbaum, Allegra Searle-LeBel and Stimulate Dance where we fucked with the museum visitors in several ways. When they arrived at the museum we detained them and put them in a little corral, we asked them to show their passports. It was very interesting - some people immediately understood that this was performance art and some people were like, “Wow, this is strange that I’ve come to New York and they do security checks at museums.” There were a lot of very confused Japanese tourists who were handing over their information and we put them in little corrals and we walked them around and we asked them what they were doing, and why they were visiting, and who they were. It maybe wasn’t very nice, but we thought using the space of the museum was an interesting place to bring up questions around security culture and surveillance. I hope it wasn’t traumatizing for people visiting the museum. We made it pretty obvious it was performance art, but not everyone got that.

I think about this for the new work I’m doing for the Whitney. It’ll be installation-based, and will put the audience into more of an interactive relationship to the work, which raises ethical questions. So for instance I’m doing a piece on drones and what does it mean to live in a place where drones are fly overhead and potentially kill you, or your neighbors, based on your SIM card?

KC: This may be one of those situations where every time we deeply engage with these technologies, there are complexities in how they can be represented. For example, many people are quite traumatized by drones, and if you live in Yemen or Pakistan they have very different resonance than if you live in London or New York. Drones have very different meanings in different geographies. I’m just completing a study with Luke Stark where we interviewed many artists who are using surveillance technologies, and we asked them all: ‘What line won’t you cross? Has there ever been a work you wouldn’t make, or a type of engagement that you just won’t have?’ And responses, understandably, are all over the map. But one thing was clear: there was a commonly-held view that there isn’t enough critical debate in the art world – and beyond – about the use of these tools.

LP: Sure, like the Sophie Calle address book. I think it is a really important piece of art, but not a piece that I would make because I wouldn’t want to be that invasive of somebody else’s privacy. So these are really complicated questions and I’m not interested in creating rules. You’re in an academic world, but I don’t ever want to see documentary filmmaking or the arts having to go through subject review committees like you have in the academy. I don’t want a committee that’s going to be sitting around and deciding what kinds of works are ethically or morally acceptable. This creates a very restrictive universe in the academy in fields like anthropology. I definitely think art should stay away from anything like that, which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t engage and ask questions about ethics and morals.

KC: Well, it’s a complicated time in the academy too – there are big data studies that raise new and difficult questions about what constitutes human subjects research. And certainly, in the wake of the Facebook emotional contagion experiment we have seen real problems when data collected through platforms isn’t subjected to ethics review. Sometimes review committees may seem restrictive, but those parameters are there based on a history that has seriously disturbing chapters. What may seem like obstructions can produce better work because it takes into account the full potential ramification of the study.

So we’ve both just come back from China, where we witnessed the extraordinary collaboration over two days between Jake Appelbaum and Ai Weiwei. Being in Weiwei’s studio had so many layers of surveillance – there was self-surveillance of everyone filming each other, then there were big security cameras that the Chinese government has erected around the perimeter of Weiwei’s studio, and finally surveillance in the form of the human intervention of the police coming in to ask him questions regularly. When you were in China did you see a different set of experiences and cultural meanings attached to surveillance? How does surveillance change in the different cultures you have worked in?

LP: First of all I want to just acknowledge the absence of both Jake and Weiwei who can’t be here because neither of them are able to travel freely. One of the interesting things about working in China is the common understanding that of course the government is spying on them. There is no pretense. It comes through with some of the cultural expressions. There were two expressions that I really liked that Weiwei talked about – first, they refer to government spooks or informants as “national treasures.”

KC: I loved that phrase.

LP: And the other was referring to government spies as “pandas.” So in popular culture national treasures like pandas are satirically equated to government spies. This expresses what popular culture and everyday people think about what their government is doing. And that’s interesting because there isn’t a parallel in the US context. I mean, maybe we should be starting to think about that, because we’re doing all kinds of surveillance. There are of course obvious differences – we don’t have the same level of overt censorship of expression.

KC: There’s certainly a shift in the US context away from in-person surveillance to network capture. It makes good economic sense for the government, but is also has profound social effects. There’s a paper by Kevin Bankston and Askhan Soltani looking at the cost of surveillance, and how the use of data surveillance is remarkably cheap – it’s really cents on the dollar versus having people actually follow you around which is very costly. Now there are ways of making data surveillance more expensive – such as using cryptography and the ‘metadata divorce’ tactics that you and Ed used. In the shift away from in-person surveillance, we see massive infrastructures of data capture being deployed invisibly, and we can lose the sense of where the humans are in the loop. That’s part of the reason that these infrastructures can seem so impersonal and so hard to grasp – because we have no idea who the people sitting behind the dashboards in the NSA’s offices are. Or how they might feel about the people they observe.

LP: Yes. what we’re probably going to see in the coming years is a greater use of misinformation to basically mess with the data set. For instance, if you want to participate in a protest like Occupy Wall Street, and you don’t actually want it to be tracked, I think there are going to be ways in which people will be proactive and fuck with the data set so that it’s hard to interpret. And I think we’re starting to see a bit of that already, and I think there’ll be more and more. We are at this kind of turning point of the data collection: we haven’t really figured out what its long term implications are psychologically, emotionally, financially, professionally. I mean, I’m really glad my youth is not searchable online, and that there isn’t a digital trail of my whole life. Future generations won’t have this separation. I can’t imagine what is it like to grow up now. But I think we will see more systems that allow us to sever or divorce our metadata so that people can hold on to the hope of maintaining some small space of privacy or anonymity.

KC: This is where I love science fiction as a mode of intervening in these kinds of concerns. There’s a fantastic novel entitled “Uglies” by Scott Westerfeld, where everybody gets a new face at the age of 16 but at serious personal and political costs. Yet you could imagine that in a facial recognition culture, that this would allow you to start again in certain ways. And I wonder – as biotracking becomes more prominent in our world, how will we create those spaces – where we divorce ourselves from the biomarker metadata of our former selves? That’s getting harder and harder. While there are more options like Tor and Open Whisper Systems for our searches, messages, and calls, we are being physically tracked almost everywhere we walk – through city streets, into stores and restaurants, in businesses and galleries. And that data has a long half-life – it may even outlive us.