There is a scene, towards the middle of Oliver Stone's new film Snowden, where the titular whistleblower Edward Snowden - as played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt - starts putting plasters across the webcams on his and his girlfriend's laptops.

It is a marker of growing paranoia during the ex-CIA employee's fall from innocence, as the full scope of the US government's surveillance of the general public becomes apparent to him.

© Open Road Films/YouTube
© Open Road Films/YouTube

When asked how he protects himself in the digital space, not only as a member of the public but as a public figure, Gordon-Levitt said: “I have had a band-aid on my camera, I to be honest don't have one on there now, I just haven't put it back."

Techworld was invited to a roundtable while Gordon-Levitt was in London to promote the upcoming UK release of Snowden, alongside journalists and members of Privacy International and Liberty, who unanimously told him to "put them back on" his webcam immediately.

Encryption and Apple

Despite his lapse in covering his webcam Gordon-Levitt is an exponent of greater encryption, and would like to see more services like the secure messaging app Signal available to the public.

"It should be easier. I have talked about using Signal which does make it pretty easy, but the folks I think have really stepped up are the technology companies and that is maybe where Snowden has had his biggest impact. Apple for example probably first and foremost has prioritised security and encryption in their software and hardware much more so than they probably would have before Snowden."

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Some of the experts around the table didn't entirely agree, saying there were still problems with security in popular technology. Gordon-Levitt was curious what they meant, with the recent iCloud celebrity hacks and concerns around the FBI's ability to hack the San Bernardino phone without Apple's help being flagged.

What Gordon-Levitt would like to see is better transparency from companies collecting these vast data sets. ”There's government surveillance but there is also data being collected by other huge institutions. I don't necessarily think it is a bad thing that Google is collecting so much data or Facebook is collecting so much data, it depends on what they are doing with it.

"What's not cool is that I don't think they are exactly transparent with it. They ask you to check a box and agree to a terms of service but they don't really explain what you are agreeing to and I would like to see the culture shift."


During the film, Shailene Woodley’s character Lindsay Mills voices the common argument of pro-mass surveillance regimes: that normal members of the public shouldn’t be concerned by state snooping because they “have nothing to hide.”

”One thing I found in having conversations with people that are less versed in these things than you are," Gordon-Levitt said, "are more prone to say 'well, I have nothing to hide' is that there was a slogan that went 'if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear' and that was a slogan of the Nazis. They said that all day long, that was a staple slogan of the Nazi party, which should tell you something.

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Conversation naturally turned to the recent US election, with Gordon-Levitt saying that he hopes the timing of the film's release will help raise awareness of this issue ahead of the so-called "turnkey tyranny" Edward Snowden has warned about.

"I don't know if that is going to convert the people that you are talking about, who are perfectly comfortable and not the type to question authority," he said, "but for people who are left leaning but not necessarily excited by this issue I think maybe revisiting it now with this President elect people have a different emotional reaction to it."

"At this moment especially with the recent election in the US and this recent [Investigatory Powers] Bill you are talking about passing in the UK that does feel like a step backwards. I'm no expert historian but it does seem like history is generally moving forward but it doesn't ultimately move forward, sometimes it goes sideways, sometimes it goes backwards [...] That may sound a bit like a generic pep talk or something but it doesn't mean we shouldn't keep fighting though.”

Echo chambers

Away from acting, Gordon-Levitt founded the startup HitRecord alongside his brother Dan in 2004, pivoting it to a place for artists to collaborate on projects online in 2010.

Gordon-Levitt is passionate about social networks, and he feels the existing big players are broken. "I'm not convinced that any of our really popular social media sites are the best way that people can use the internet to communicate.

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"They feed you addictive little pieces of stimulus that release endorphins and make you want to keep scrolling, and the more you scroll the more ads you see and that's how they make money. That's not necessarily the way the internet has to work but it is how it is working today."

His comments come at a time where there is much soul searching happening among the tech community, as social media is seen to reinforce beliefs and block out alternative points of view, the so called 'echo chamber' effect. That’s without mentioning the issue of fake news being allowed to proliferate on these platforms.

Gordon-Levitt is naturally optimistic about communities like HitRecord being a more net-positive influence on the internet, but admits that it is the David to Twitter and Facebook's Goliath. "We are obviously a completely different scale. It's a relatively small community of half a million people that are generally young and artistically inclined people, so maybe that is an echo chamber of its own kind. But I am interested to try to see what kind of projects we can do to try and communicate better with folks who have perspectives other than ours."

HitRecord recently partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to produce a series of videos, of which Snowden himself contributed, around opening up conversations on "how technology and democracy impact each other," Gordon-Levitt said.

Snowden is in UK cinemas from December 9.