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.
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.Read more
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.
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.
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.Read more
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.
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.Read more
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.)
It’s that time of year again… Tomorrow the 70th Edinburgh International Film Festival kicks off and we’re very pleased to see so many friends and colleagues in the line-up! With such a massive selection of fantastic films and events to pick from we thought we’d help all you Scottish doc-heads out by giving you a quick round-up of everything that we’re up to at this year’s festival:Read more
This year’s Bridging the Gap is well underway, with our four commissioned filmmakers currently in production with their selected films which will each respond to this year’s theme, WOMEN. We are delighted that, aptly, this year is the first year we have an all female cohort of participants.
Natalia is a freelance video editor and motion graphics designer with a big passion for documentary filmmaking. Originally from Greece, she has spent the last ten years studying and working in Italy and England and has recently made Scotland her new home. Lindsay is a visual artist, filmmaker and underwater camera woman. Wilma is a self shooting filmmaker with several shoestring budget features to her credit and who has recently turned to documentary. And Lucie is a lens-based artist living in Dundee. Her practice is somewhat confessional, working predominantly in video and photography to express recurring themes of domestic relationships, gender and the unspoken.
We caught up with each of them as they enter this exciting, if challenging, part of the process, to hear a little more about their idea and its development.
The Glasgow Film Festival is in full swing and if the programme is anything to go by 2016 will be a stellar year for Scottish documentaries. From genre-bending experimental features to storytelling and visual anthropology, the diversity of these docs suggests a healthy and thriving scene in Scotland. We’re very proud of all the films we've helped along the way and can’t wait to see all the others.
Enjoy our quick round-up of what’s on over the next few days!Read more
Commissioned as part of our Bridging the Gap initiative, designed to foster emerging documentary talent, we are delighted to see Mining Poems or Odes go on to great international success. Since its première at the Edinburgh Film Festival last June the film has won a BAFTA Scotland Award for Best Short Film and is now nominated for a BAFTA for Best British Short Film. The award ceremony is this Sunday so we will have everything crossed for that one! Between these two glamorous events the film has screened at Sundance Film Festival and here the Director, Callum Rice, tells us of his experience as a young filmmaker at one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world...
The film isn’t over until received by an audience.
After the premiere of Mining Poems or Odes at the Redstone Theatre, an ex-Miner from Utah, who was at the screening, stayed behind to chat to me. He told me about the older miners who sang opera down the mines when he worked with them in the past. This man from Utah had made an instant connection with Robert Fullerton’s experience through viewing my film.