For journalist and filmmaker Laura Poitras, surveillance is a given. Before Poitras won an Oscar for her documentary about whistleblower Edward Snowden and his evidence around mass NSA surveillance, she edited “Citizenfour” in Berlin because she feared the U.S. government would seize her source material. Now, she’s sharing the lessons that other documentarians need to protect their own work.
Poitras worked with the Freedom of the Press Foundation and Field of Vision to create a site that contains everything from how to create unguessable, four-layer passwords to a 20-page template for Risk Assessment and Security Protocol that asks filmmakers to consider security check-in procedures (time? place? method?), psychological security, and identifying the risk scenarios for your cover stories, if compromised.
Digital Security for Filmmakers includes quotes from fellow filmmakers like Lyric Cabral, who said she knew her work on 2015 FBI counterterrorism documentary “(T)error” was under surveillance, and “Strong Island” director Yance Ford, who admits that he didn’t fully understand the risks he and his loved ones faced.
The site is comprehensive and can be an unnerving reality check. Black is the background color, with text appearing in white (and occasionally red) reverse type. Security considerations include footage, communication, mobile, desktop, and travel as well as “YOUR ADVERSARIES’ CAPABILITIES: WHAT ARE LIKELY THREATS I MIGHT FACE OVER THE COURSE OF THIS PROJECT?”
“I’ve been incredibly fortunate to collaborate with digital security experts to protect my sources and source material,” Poitras said in a statement. “This platform in an effort to scale knowledge, and provide a navigable tool to assist documentary filmmakers in assessing and mitigating digital security risks.”
Digital security experts at the Freedom of the Press Foundation researched and built the platform with documentary production company Field of Vision. The nonprofit documents and reports on press freedom violations in the U.S., advocates for issues affecting journalists’ rights worldwide, conducts newsroom security trainings, and developed anonymous whistleblower platform SecureDrop. It was made in collaboration with Field of Vision.
“We are so proud to be launching these new resources for filmmakers,” said Charlotte Cook, co-creator and executive producer of Field of Vision. “The risks to filmmakers and crew around the world continue to increase, and so we are truly grateful to Laura and the Freedom of the Press Foundation team for all the work that has gone into providing such a vital source of information, guidance and expertise.
Poitras is clearly passionate about filmmaker security; in addition to facing it in her own work, she created a 2016 solo exhibit for the Whitney Museum of Art that drew from her experiences documenting mass surveillance, the war on terror, the U.S. drone program, Guantánamo Bay Prison, occupation, and torture. However, her participation in Digital Security for Filmmakers comes with a complex backstory.
Field of Vision is owned by First Look Media. In January, Poitras went public with allegations she was fired from First Look Media, which she co-founded, in retaliation for her criticism of how The Intercept handled whistleblower Reality Winner in a story it published in 2018. First Look disputes Poitras’ characterization. First Look owns both Field of Vision, the documentary production company where Poitras did much of her work, and The Intercept. Poitras is also a board member of the Freedom of the Press Foundation.
On September 29, Field of Vision and the foundation will launch an ongoing free digital security clinic for documentary filmmakers that features group training sessions and private consultation time for filmmakers and production teams led by trainers from the foundation. It’s open to all film professionals who fill out an intake survey.
“Digital security isn’t a single product you can buy or a set of steps you can learn,” said project coordinator Olivia Martin. “It’s also a way of thinking, and therefore an ongoing process — an evolving relationship with the information you are trying to protect. We’ve learned so much from documentary filmmakers as we’ve prepared this platform, and we’re proud and excited to offer this resource back to the community to help us all make more informed decisions to keep each other safe.”