Filmmakers and legal experts discuss expanding threats to the privacy of electronic devices posed by advanced surveillance techniques at Double Exposure Film Festival.
Prying Eyes and the Widening Net of Government Surveillance at #DXIFF23

By Ella Mitchell


(Washington, D.C.) – At Double Exposure  Film Festival and Symposium, filmmakers and legal experts discussed an expanding threat to the privacy of electronic devices through advanced surveillance techniques at a dedicated panel discussion, “Eyes Everywhere: The Widening Net of Government Surveillance.”

Moderated by Clayton Weimers, executive director of the US office of Reporters Without Borders, the panel featured documentary filmmakers David Novack and Kate Stonehill, Emma Weil, a senior policy analyst at Upturn, and Kathleen McClellan of the Whistleblower and Source Protection Program at ExposeFacts.

Novack’s film All Static & Noise, which had its US premiere at Double Exposure this weekend, offers unprecedented access to survivors of China’s Uyghur reeducation camps and their families. Novack emphasized the risks of spyware and communication during the filming process, detailing steps his team took to protect members of the Uyghur diaspora who spoke out. The risks extend to sources and journalists too. After completing the project, Novack and his colleagues work under the assumption that they’re always being surveilled.

“There’s a discomfort that you have to learn to be comfortable with if you’re going to be engaged with some of these topics in certain places around the world,” Novack said.

Surveillance does not only exist within authoritarian governments. Stonehill’s film, Phantom Parrot, also on the DX slate, covers a human rights activist who was arrested for refusing to share his passwords and the top-secret British surveillance programs that open the way for such privacy infringements.

“It’s about systems that exploit these loopholes, these vulnerabilities,” Stonehill said. “And they’re using it to target — fairly routinely — to target activists and journalists.”

Weil said that the amount of information people keep centrally located on themselves is unprecedented, but the laws aren’t often updated in tandem. This, she said, creates legal vulnerabilities that police can exploit.

“Police generally can get their way,” Weil said. “Even if you have the best, longest password ever, there’s a chance of you still being compelled or threatened, and police would have whatever [is on your device].”

Nevertheless, ways remain for journalists, activists, and everyday citizens alike to protect themselves and their information, Weil said. She recommends people uses encryption, and that journalists proactively get a legal perspective to better understand the risks of working with sensitive sources or subjects.

Additionally, McClellan said, it’s important to recognize when sources are being threatened and to continue to vigilantly publicize stories where wrongful surveillance is taking place.

“You can’t assume that you’re ever going to be free from this monster,” McClellan said. “It’s kind of like we’ve been saying: you have to adapt and fight it when you can.”

DOUBLE EXPOSURE is America’s first and only film festival dedicated to the burgeoning intersection between investigative reporting and visual storytelling. It pairs the finest, new investigative films with an immersive professional symposium that brings together watchdog journalists and narrative/documentary filmmakers for one purpose; to elevate stories anchored in the search for truth.