A Good American

Theresa May's pet project (and it's not Brexit)

Christmas has come early for the new British Prime Minister. Theresa May’s pet project, the ‘Snooper’s Charter’ to massively ramp up state surveillance, was defeated by Lib Dem opposition during the previous coalition government. But just hours after the ballots were counted on 8 May 2015, a triumphant May announced that the new, unrestrained Conservative government would resurrect the bill, in order to ensure the security services can “keep us safe and secure”. Last week this new Investigatory Powers (IP) Bill passed the final reading in the House of Lords and is likely to become law before the year is up.

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Debate around the bill – limited as it was – has tended to polarise around two sometimes abstract positions: On the one hand, those who believe that ‘ordinary’ citizens should have no reason to fear a bit of state surveillance; on the other, those who issue dire warnings about freedom and privacy. So what’s the issue with this legislation – and what will actually change when the IP Bill becomes law?

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Meet the NSA whistleblower: Bill Binney's call to action

At the UK premiere of A Good American at Take One Action Film Festival as part of Moving Docs, NSA analyst-turned-whistleblower Bill Binney made a strong case against mass surveillance and for the need to focus.

Here's our video:

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At war against the "totalitarian temptation"

Bill Binney is not mincing his words. In a rallying battle cry against mass surveillance, the former NSA analyst tells an audience at the UK premiere of A Good American that we are basically at war. In every democracy across the world; in our very “hearts and minds”, a war “against the totalitarian temptation” is being waged.

Perhaps because Binney is such a quiet, considered man, his words seem to carry extra weight. But it’s not just his solemnity that captures attention. Binney is not just a campaigner for civil liberties, speaking of principles and rights. He was on the inside – one of them. A high-level NSA analyst, technical director, and one of the best mathematicians the agency ever had, Bill Binney was their man for 32 years. And then, suddenly, he was their enemy.

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A Good American tells the story of Binney’s life work, and his persecution by the government. Summarising the situation for the audience at the Take One Action Film Festival, Binney runs through every major terrorist attack in recent years. Madrid, Boston, 9/11, 7/7, Paris, Orlando, the list goes on. “All preventable”, he says, glumly; “all we needed was to watch the metadata.” Instead, the NSA dragged in all the content, swamping analysts with unmanageable volumes of information. They’re still doing it now – NSA, GCHQ, French security and others – trampling privacy and missing clues. It’s this that makes Binney so angry.

Thankfully, he found someone who would tell his story.

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Mass data collection stops terrorism – doesn't it?

Fifteen years ago the world was still reeling from a terrorist attack on a scale previously unthinkable. The destruction of the twin towers in New York and the Pentagon attack on 11 September 2001 resulted in nearly 3,000 deaths and 6,000 injuries. Everybody old enough remembers watching the footage: smoke and ash billowing through Manhattan, people jumping from unimaginable heights, the second tower going down.

In the wake of 9/11 came invasion and never-ending war; many, many more deaths than the event itself caused. The erosion of civil liberties and privacy, not just in the US but across the world, followed suit, as government surveillance expanded even further.

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Dark times for data protection in Europe – has the UK lost the plot?

The US government is vast. Its spying capabilities are vast too, and their precise nature – as well as what happens to you if you whistleblow about it – are the topics of upcoming film A Good American.

But you can’t really talk about the NSA without talking eventually about GCHQ, the UK equivalent. The Snowden leaks in 2013 showed how closely the two countries had collaborated in developing mass surveillance programs aimed at their own populations; but just two days ago, further leaks showed that the ‘collect it all’ ethos which came to dominate the American agency originated in the English countryside.

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Still from A Good American: NSA's Bad Aibling listening post (now BND)

So in this third post on the issues raised in A Good American, we’re looking at the NSA’s friends in Britain, and how the UK’s current approach contrasts with developments in Europe. Three years since the first documents showing the extent of mass surveillance were leaked by Edward Snowden, even the US government has rolled back some of its spying, though not nearly far enough for many civil liberty advocates. The EU, meanwhile, has been getting tougher on companies sharing EU citizens’ data with the US.

But in the UK, where privacy protections are already poor, the government is apparently determined to increase mass surveillance to unprecedented levels.

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Spies, Inc: the NSA’s catastrophic outsourcing failure – and what it means for surveillance today

In our first post in the run-up to the premiere of A Good American, we introduced ThinThread: the most powerful surveillance tool you’ve probably never heard of. This groundbreaking model of digital information mapping was, its proponents argued, proof that you can track the bad guys without infringing the privacy of the innocent.

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Coming up with this solution did not win Bill Binney and his NSA colleagues any accolades though. Instead, their programme was scrapped and their homes were raided by the FBI, and the government began spying on its citizens in an unprecedented way.

The reasons would appear to be depressingly familiar – according to the whistleblowers, it was money, greed and corruption that led the US government down this path.

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The most powerful surveillance tool you’ve (never) heard of

In the first of a series of posts on the upcoming film A Good American, we look at the extraordinary surveillance program that caused NSA analyst-turned-whistleblower Bill Binney so many problems. What, exactly, was ThinThread?

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A Good American

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Bill Binney was the best codebreaker in US history. After the Cold War, he developed a revolutionary surveillance tool called ThinThread that was cheap and efficient, and didn’t invade anyone’s privacy. He developed it right up until the NSA scrapped it - three weeks before 9/11. In its place NSA chose a surveillance system that generated profit and spied on its own citizens instead of its enemies. This system remains in place today.

A Good American tells one of the most important stories of the information society, and dissects the inner workings and ties of a politico-economic network whose reach goes way beyond America.

 

Director/DOP/Producer - Friedrich Moser
Senior Producer - Michael Seeber
Editing - Jesper Osmund, Kirk von Heflin
Music - 
Christopher Slaski, Guy Farley
Production Company - 
blue+green communication
Length - 
101 Minutes
Date of Premiere - 2016-01-07
UK Distribution - Scottish Documentary Institute

 

Watch the trailer here.

Visit the film's website here.

Book your screening of A Good American here. (Available from 23rd September 2016 onwards.)

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A Good American - Moving Docs UK

A Good American is a gripping docu-thriller about a groundbreaking surveillance programme, the brilliant mastermind behind it, and how a perfect alternative to mass surveillance was killed by NSA management for money – three weeks prior to 9/11.