With a title like I Spy (With My Five Eyes), one might not think of a documentary film so much as a horror movie, or perhaps an action-packed spy caper along the lines of The Bourne Identity. Although perhaps this film may be properly considered to be all three. The documentary project, which features social media and online components, considers the role of the intelligence-gathering community in our globalized society.
At its most basic level, this topic brings up a question that goes back to antiquity regarding the role that those in power have over privacy: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes, or “Who guards the guards?”
“That is the thing that makes people so nervous today,” says the project’s director and creator, Justin Pemberton. “These intelligence agencies are a somewhat independent form of government, and at times we’ve seen that the leadership within these agencies is even hostile to their democratic leadership. They operate under the policy that politicians may come and go, but they [the intelligence organizations] are here to stay.”
These agencies have demonstrated lasting power indeed.
Created during the Cold War, when it was very clear who “the enemy” was, the Five Eyes Alliance—or FVEY—is an intelligence coalition comprising the five English-speaking nations bound by the multilateral UK-USA Agreement, which provides for joint cooperation in signals intelligence.
At its inception, the purpose of the Five Eyes, which encompasses Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States, was to monitor the communications of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, but even during those days, its intelligence-gathering role was more straightforward in theory than in practice.
When the Cold War ended in the early 1990s, it could have been eyes wide shut for the alliance. Instead, after the “wall came down” and relations warmed between the Soviets and the West for a time, the group’s mandate was renewed—and then revitalized with our ongoing so-called “war on terror.”
The network justified its role after the collapse of the Soviet Union as a reaction to the emergence of digital communications. It is for this reason that Pemberton, a New Zealand native, says it was so important to make this documentary.
“New Zealand has declared itself nuclear-free, and that would suggest it would be neutral in such affairs,” Pemberton explains. “But that hasn’t affected the intelligence operations. In fact, the end of the Cold War coincided with the rise of the internet and digital communications, and now it is scary because everyone and everything can be a target.”
I Spy (With my Five Eyes), which was supported with funding from NZ On Air and the Canada Media Fund, and created with the help of Canadian digital agency Jam3, has broken from the customary documentary narrative. It does feature standard documentary voiceover—in this case by Lucy Lawless—and features interviews with a range of sources, including the ex-director of the NSA and CIA, General Michael Hayden; investigative journalist Nicky Hager; cyber security expert Brian Contos; NSA whistleblower William Binney; and former Anonymous hacker Gregg Housh.
Where it diverges from the traditional documentary form is in its presentation. Online viewers can watch any of its five parts in any order and, more importantly, they can comment on what they’ve seen—anonymously, in recognition of the fact that it’s quite possible that our online actions are being monitored and recorded, ostensibly for intelligence-gathering purposes in support of national and global security.
“Capturing opinions during video playback allows people to jump in while their thoughts are fresh during controversial points in every chapter,” says Adrian Belina, co-founder of Jam3, which crafted the interactive component. “It eliminates the need for a second screen. It allows the viewer to take a pause and consider a variety of opinions about the dialogue and express their own right in the moment, which can make the overall experience more impactful.”
I Spy (With my Five Eyes) has created considerable debate, which the developers say has been very positive. “We’re already impressed by the level of engagement,” says Pemberton. “Five to 10 percent of those who view the film leave a comment, and most of it is very much on topic.”
One irony not lost on Pemberton or the creators at Jam3 is how the same people who are vocal about the loss of privacy and who have concerns about who might be “watching” online are all too likely to leave comments on social media.
“In the spirit of respecting privacy while encouraging freedom of speech, our in-video commenting tool doesn’t require login. Instead, we elected to show national flags beside each comment,” adds Belina. “It encourages conversation to flow more openly, with context for where opinions are coming from, while offering a level of anonymity. We’ve seen some really candid discussions happening from all corners of the world as a result.”
Allowing anonymity could be seen to pave the way for people to make outrageous comments or start flame wars, but Belina says the result has been the opposite.
Where I Spy (With my Five Eyes) also differs from other documentaries is in how it is using technology to open dialogue, not to showcase new technologies or advanced features.
“We see that the TV is kind of a dying form, and no longer do you need to view it in a 20th century manner where the show is on at certain time,” says Pemberton. “Now you can watch [shows] when you want and in the order you want, but at the same time you can click deeper, leave comments and get engaged. But we also noticed that documentaries online are too often focused on the technology innovation, and that takes away from the story aspect.”
The other significant aspect of this documentary is a discussion about what digital monitoring technologies may be capable of in the future. “The big thing from this story is that it is more of a thought piece about how we live and how we’ll live in the future,” he says. “That information has been out there for a long time, so what has been missing is what happens next. In many cases there is little thought beyond the ‘Snowden headline,’ but there is more going on, and it is going somewhere darker.”