If the debate over digital privacy were a TV show, this is what it would look like

Digital freedom
7 mins

This post was originally published on June 22, 2016.

It’s no secret that the fight for digital privacy has taken some dramatic turns — just look at the life history of Edward Snowden. His monumental act of whistleblowing sparked a journey that stretched across continents and drew the attention of numerous heads of state.

All that intrigue has made Snowden’s story perfect for adaption. Laura Poitras won an Oscar when she made the Oscar-winning documentary Citizen Four, and later this year Open Road Films will release Snowden, a feature film with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the titular role. Now Daniel Radcliffe is adding himself to the mix. The British actor will be playing Edward Snowden in Privacy, an Off Broadway production hosted by the same theater that put on Tony sensation Hamilton.

ExpressVPN is pretty excited by all the attention creatives are giving Edward Snowden. His revelations had a huge impact on how we think about everything about government to gadgetry, so why not the arts as well?

Still, there’s a bigger story out there, and while film and theater are fine for two hours of entertainment, television is king in terms of binge-worthy streamability and intricate plot lines. To that end, ExpressVPN has done Hollywood the favor of casting a hypothetical epic series following the struggle over digital privacy. Think Game of Thrones meets House of Cards, with a little bit of Silicon Valley for good measure.


Top row from left to right: John Perry Barlow, John Gilmore, Mitch Kapor Bottom row from left to right: Bryan Cranston, Matthew McConaughey, Jonathan Banks

The story begins in the early 1990s when an FBI agent arrives at the Wyoming ranch of Grateful Dead lyricist/Internet enthusiast John Perry Barlow (played by Breaking Bad alum Bryan Cranston). Someone has stolen and distributed ROMs containing Macintosh source code, and the agent wants answers. Yet as the investigation unfolds, it becomes clear that the agent is barely familiar with the technology he is investigating. Barlow begins to worry: If the FBI doesn’t understand the digital world, how can anyone accused of a digital crime prove his innocence?

Disturbed by the experience, Barlow reaches out to others in the tech world. He finds partners in John Gilmore (a transformative performance by Matthew McConaughey) and Mitch Kapor (Jonathan Banks). They establish the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization that will pioneer the fight for civil liberties online.

The king of the north

Fast-forward to 2013. The evidence provided by Edward Snowden has shocked the world, casting suspicion on the global intelligence community. The United States is particularly embarrassed and wants Snowden to return to his home country to stand trial.

Vladimir Putin (left) and Woody Harrelson (right) share striking features and entrancing blue eyes.

This marks an opportunity for Vladimir Putin (Woody Harrelson), President of the Russian Federation. The country formerly belonged to a larger bloc of countries that was locked in a decades-long ideological struggle with the U.S. While relations with the U.S. have improved over recent decades, the two countries are far from bosom buddies. Putin decides to offer asylum to Snowden, further straining ties with the U.S.

The news comes as a mixed blessing to privacy activists. On the one hand, Snowden’s safety is a chief concern, as he now represents a movement centered around burgeoning awareness of digital privacy. On the other hand, President Putin is no white knight–a former intelligence operative, he has subjected his country to stringent censorship and harsh NGO regulation.

For the love of privacy

Taylor Lautner (right) would bring a roguish charm to the part of David Miranda (left).

Even after the initial release of documents, the reporting on Edward Snowden continues. The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, Snowden’s initial media contact, works from Brazil, a resource-rich nation in the southern hemisphere. Greenwald needs key documents from Laura Poitras, but scrutiny from the U.S. government has sent her to the German capital of Berlin. Greenwald sends his partner, David Miranda (Taylor Lautner), to see Poitras.

All goes according to plan until Miranda heads home. He stops at London’s Heathrow Airport to change planes, at which point he is detained by British police under Schedule 7 of Terrorism Act 2000. They proceed to take all his electronics and copy their contents. Nine hours later, Miranda is released.

Miranda’s detention draws criticism from around the world, with many pointing to it as a misapplication of legislation meant to be used against suspected terrorists. When Miranda finally lands in Rio de Janeiro, he is greeted by a concerned Greenwald and a flock of journalists.

Big tech vs. big government

Meanwhile, the United States is locked in some serious soul-searching. The country’s mass-surveillance was largely a response to terrorist attacks it sustained on September 11, 2001. While no equivalent attack has occurred in the years since, many citizens are struggling to reconcile large-scale government surveillance with the country’s founding principles of liberty and democracy.

On December 2, 2015, a married couple armed with guns stages a terrorist attack in San Bernadino, a town in the western state of California. 14 people are killed and 22 are injured. The couple dies four hours later during a shootout with police.

Despite a background in comedy, Neil Patric Harris (right) would likely have little trouble channeling tech mogul Tim Cook (left).

In the aftermath of the shooting, investigators discover that one of the shooters possessed an iPhone, a handheld piece of cellular technology, that may carry clues regarding the attack. However, the iPhone is locked with a code. When investigators are unable to guess the code, they try to compel the device’s manufacturer, Apple, to create a backdoor so they can decrypt the device’s data.

Apple is a multinational corporation with hundreds of millions of customers. Hoping to use some of its brand clout to raise awareness of the magnitude of the government’s request, Apple CEO Tim Cook (an artificially aged Neil Patrick Harris) appeals to consumers with a highly publicized letter. The government eventually withdraws its request, but only after finding a third party who could hack the device for them.

Senators Burr (top left) and Feinstein (bottom left) collaborated in drafting an alarming anti-encryption bill. That makes horror veterans Kevin Bacon (top right) and Jessica Lange (bottom right) great candidates for their roles.

In response to the event, members of the U.S. national legislative body begin drafting new legislation. Some, like Senators Richard Burr (Kevin Bacon) and Dianne Feinstein (a haunting Jessica Lange), try to weaken encryption by compelling tech companies to comply with requests from law enforcement agencies. Others take a heroic stand for privacy, like California Congressman Ted Lieu (Daniel Wu), who tries to stop states from banning encryption.

Congressman Ted Lieu (left) would be done proud by Into the Badlands actor Daniel Wu.

On the other side of the pond…

Imagine the icy determination Julianne Moore (right) would bring to the role of Home Secretary Theresa May (left).

While the United States struggles with its conscience, its erstwhile colonial master, the United Kingdom, ponders expanding its own mass surveillance program. Home Minister Theresa May (Oscar-winner Julianne Moore) pushes forward the Investigatory Powers Bill, which would give the government the latitude to cyberspy on just about anyone, provided they get judicial approval. Public criticism pushes May to slightly tone down the bill, but a fearsome iteration is still able to make it through the House of Commons.

To be continued!

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Image attributions:

John Perry Barlow: Joi / Flickr
John Gilmore: Neurosynthetic / Wikimedia Commons
Mitch Kapor: JoiFlickr
Bryan Cranston: Peabody AwardsFlickr
Matthew McConaughey: Georges BiardWikimedia Commons
Jonathan Banks: Gage SkidmoreWikimedia Commons
Vladimir Putin: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office 
Woody Harrelson: David ShankboneWikimedia Commons
David Miranda: Agencia Brasil / Wikimedia Commons
Taylor Lautner: Eva Rinaldi / Flickr
Tim Cook: LeMagITFlickr
Neil Patrick Harris: Kristin Dos Santos / Flickr
Richard Burr: US Senate Wikimedia Commons
Dianne Feinstein: United States Congress / Wikimedia Commons
Kevin Bacon: SAGIndieFlickr
Jessica Lang: Anne Morin, diChroma photography / Wikimedia Commons
Ted Lieu: US Congress / Wikimedia Commons
Daniel Wu: Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons
Theresa May: ukhomeoffice / Wikimedia Commons
Julianne Moore: nicolas genin / Flickr