Henrik Moltke is a journalist, researcher, and filmmaker. His recent work has appeared in The Intercept, The New York Times, at the Whitney Museum and at the Sundance Film Festival. Moltke won the 2014 Danish Investigative Journalism Award and co-directed Project X, with Laura Poitras.
NOTE: This story is the outcome of an early test of using StoryEngine as a grant reporting mechanism. Instead of submitting a written report, grantees tell their story via an interview, which is then co-edited and shared publicly. The methodology and question set are evolving, and will be posted on GitHub.
- Project X — a documentary short film by Henrik Moltke and Laura Poitras
- Titanpointe: The NSA’s Spy Hub in New York, Hidden in Plain Sight (The Intercept)
- AT&T Helped U.S. Spy on Internet on a Vast Scale (New York Times)
- Interview with Henrik and Laura Poitras (Field of Vision)
- Good Copy Bad Copy (film on copyright)
Can you start by giving me a broad overview of your work, and then highlighting what you’re working on now?
I have an audio storytelling background and have done a number of projects where I try to unpack complicated technical issues — the societal consequences of technology — by telling narrative-based stories. In 2011, when I started exploring surveillance issues, I was working on a radio documentary called Wo das Internet Lebt / Hvor Internettet Bor — a collaboration between me and Moritz Metz, a German audio reporter. We thought it was strange that we didn’t have a clear idea where our data is physically located. At the same time, I was also interested in the bigger subject area of internet freedom and internet governance — specifically about the abstract notions of the cloud. When we use cloud-based services, what actually happens? Where is this stuff? Moritz and I embarked on a long journey but it was hard for me to find a clear and appealing narrative.
Then Edward Snowden came forward in June 2013. Suddenly the story emerged. I was able to travel to Rio de Janeiro and connect with Glenn Greenwald and we agreed that I would cover Denmark, my home country, in terms of reporting on the documents with colleagues from a Danish newspaper, Information.dk. Glenn then connected us with Laura Poitras in Berlin and we wrote a number of stories in collaboration with her.
I was still interested in the physical aspects of surveillance and had started researching the Snowden archive looking for evidence of where this happened. Laura asked me if I wanted to travel with her to New York to work on one of the stories, I had been researching the NSA’s partnership with AT&T. The New York Times and agreed to collaborate on the reporting but didn’t want to disclose the physical infrastructure locations. They were initially difficult to work with on this sensitive topic, so we decided to work with, Julia Angwin and Jeff Larson at ProPublicaand put together enough hard evidence for the story. After getting enough to back the story, we circled back to The New York Times and resumed the collaboration with them. In the end, when it was finished, the AT&T story was a big deal. When I landed in Berlin the day after it came out, the story was on the displays in Tegel Airport.
The AT&T story was also important because we were able to prove what everyone had suspected, and which was very clear from the documents: that the NSA had decades-long collaborations with U.S. telecom companies. The way I was finally able to confirm that AT&T was indeed the partner with the codename we were looking at was by looking at physical infrastructure and the traces of it mentioned in the archive. You can’t have a big surveillance apparatus without it being connected to physical places and cables. I found that an earthquake in Japan had severed one of the subsea cables between Asia and the U.S. In one Snowden document, the cable station serving this station was described as offline for four months and the day it went back online, when the collection could start again, was the day that the cable between Japan and the U.S. was repaired. Starting from there, with Julia and Jeff from ProPublica, we were able to piece together evidence that could prove this collaboration.
That was a very satisfying experience, but I still really wanted to speak more about the physical locations. At the same time, I felt there were things in the documents that called for other kinds of reporting or storytelling styles; things that didn’t fit into the strict matrix of traditional investigative reporting. Things that told another kind of story about the environment. I was lucky to be able to start working on projects with Laura and other reporters such as Ryan Gallagherfrom The Intercept, combining hard-hitting journalism with other forms of storytelling. I helped Laura with research for her exhibition Astro Noise at the Whitney Museum and out of that I found an amazing story that I reported with Cora Currier about an operation in Cyprus that enabled British and American spies to hack into Israeli drones’ onboard cameras and tap into their video feeds.
In Project X, we focused on the everyday world of the people who work for secretive government agencies and have to interface with the private companies they rely on. We asked questions like “What do you do if your car breaks down while you’re on your way to meet with these private companies? Who do you call?” or “What do you do if someone finds out that you work for the government?” While the written piece connects AT&T, the NSA, the FBI, and AT&T’s building at 33 Thomas Street in Manhattan, the film dwells a lot on the writing style of the documents, masterfully voiced over by Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) and Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea).
’ve had a prolonged interest in storytelling related to the non-evidentiary parts of document archives. The project that I’m working on now, with funding from the Mozilla Foundation, was born out of this same interest.
I watched Project X to prepare to speak with you. I had already read your piece in The New York Times and skimmed through the documents themselves, so I had an idea what was in the documents before seeing the movie. I was really able to see how you brought the documents to life.
Thank you. I’m happy you saw it that way. I had figured out the role of this building when I first met with The New York Times, but it took a lot of time to prove it in a way that couldn’t be dismissed. Although The New York Times was worried about someone planting a bomb, 33 Thomas Street was built specifically to be the toughest building in New York City — it’s nuclear-proof — so their argument was not 100% valid. It’s a fascinating, crazy structure and it’s a trip that it happens to play an important role in this surveillance infrastructure,
You mentioned that it was a very satisfying experience to be able to prove it. My next question is related to that. Thinking about your work, can you hone in on a time when you really felt a sense of success? Especially as it relates to the work that you’ve been doing with the Mozilla Foundation grant.
I can tell you broadly that we’re doing another story about locations. It’s taken a long time, it feels like forever. I’ve engaged in processes like this a number of times and there’s always a moment of no return — a moment where the story is revealed. We’ve had that moment for this project, but describing it would reveal too much.
Can you give me an example of either a recurring or recent challenge?
With every big investigation, there is a moment where you have doubts. The better the story, the more you have those moments where you wonder if you’re on the right track. It’s important to get feedback from editors, partners, and the people you work with. You need go back to basics and ask simple questions like, “What do we know?” That’s also what drives me — I like stories where that tension is high.
On this project specifically, one of the things that’s been difficult is that it hasn’t gone as planned. When we originally started talking about it, we discussed a very open working process where I, for example, would blog about the purpose of the story. That was optimistic — it doesn’t quite work that way. In practice, it’s hard to know when to start revealing partial information because you don’t know when you’re going to publish — maybe in three weeks or maybe in two months.
It can be frustrating to work with classified information. You can’t do gradual stories where you release information incrementally because, unless you have a very good overview, someone else could just take one piece and scoop you on the the rest of your story. And you don’t want to get scooped because you’ve spent months cultivating sources and looking at open records to verify what you’ve gathered from closed sources.
When you gain access to documents that don’t have the names redacted in them, who does the redacting and who makes sure that the un-redacted documents don’t leak further?
This is a very important question. There are a number of concerns when you work as a journalist, including determining if the information you reveal may damage national security. For all these stories, we contact the government before publication to make sure we don’t make mistakes. It’s a delicate process for both the journalist and the government — especially since the government can’t confirm the authenticity of the documents. They have an interest in protecting their assets and the safety of their employees — and we have an interest in making sure we don’t publish something that might threaten that.
For Project X, the redactions you hear in in the film are names of employees and, at one place, a location. We felt it was reasonable to redact that location.
So while redaction is adversarial, there’s also a partnership in that you both want to protect national security.
It’s a difficult task to redact documents because the journalistic imperative is to publish as much as possible. But you also need to understand their concerns. We try to understand everything in the documents and most of the time I would say we do, but obviously there could be something in there we missed, and that could have serious consequences if published. We have no interest in, say, outing government employees that aren’t public figures.
When we made Project X, we thought a lot about how to represent to the viewer the fact that we’ve altered the documents — and whether or not we should include a notice, things like that. It’s easy to put a black bar in a document and there’s a common understanding, when reading documents, what that means. But how do you represent that in a film? We had a lot of discussions about how we were going to do that. Would we put some kind of noise or sound effect? Bleep it? Those ideas didn’t work. We ended up asking Rami Malek — the narrator — to repeat the word “redacted” many times so that we could place it on top of the other audio so that it was clear that we had altered the text.
You mentioned that there was a change in what you proposed doing and what you are working on. If it’s valuable, can you walk me through the process and rationale for making those changes? I imagine this happens a lot: Grantees start working on something, but then realize they have to shift or pivot. How did you work with Mozilla to address that?
The timeline for this project is still very blurry and we’ve “pivoted”, as they say, a couple of times. Brett Gaylor, my contact at Mozilla, being himself an experienced director, has an excellent understanding of these things. Mozilla gave me a development grant meant to help the process of telling the story of these physical locations. Again, without getting into too much details, there were things in the early process of developing this story that turned out to be bad ideas and which had to be stripped away.
For this project, I contacted Mozilla when I had the basic findings for a new investigative story and a rudimentary idea for a documentary. I didn’t know what would happen when we started filming. You just don’t know these things in advance and luckily — hopefully — it all comes together later. It’s very hard to work without support on these six- to twelve month-long investigations while trying to figure out a way to do something artistic too. It takes a lot of time and, sadly, money. Mozilla and Brett Gaylor have been very understanding and wanted to support the possibility of something like this happening from the very first stage. I’m not sure I would have been able to do it without this early support. To be honest, I’m still not sure how we will do it, but we’re a lot closer.
You touched on your audience, finding the best narrative, and the fact that it’s hard to get people’s interest. That was part of my next question. How do you envision or how would you describe your audience?
There are a lot of people out there who are generally interested in understanding the “black boxes“ that surround them — the things they do or interact with on a daily basis, that need to be simplified in order for them to be happy. You don’t need to understand every part of the internet to use it, but when it doesn’t work, you have to figure out part of it — if you want to fix it yourself.
For an earlier documentary, I went to a school and asked the kids to draw “where the internet lives”. Some of them drew spider webs and network diagrams, while others drew cell phone towers and the logos of the companies that provide internet services. When asked where they get their internet from, they didn’t know and suddenly became very interested. It’s something that plays such a big role in their lives and they realized, “Oh, I don’t actually know where the internet comes from.”
I spent fifteen years working in public service broadcasting and believe in mixing facts and a didactic approach with an entertaining, storytelling approach. You have to get people into that space by seducing them slightly. I don’t have a clear recipe for how that’s done. I do know that when I’m fascinated by something, I’m often able to transfer that fascination to others.
The internet has been the dominant technology of transformation and societal and political change over the last thirty years — yet there are still so many things about it that we don’t know or understand. The other project that I’m working on relies on the basic fact that the internet is a network of networks that is owned privately, with a number of companies — such as Google and At&T — maintaining their own networks. But nobody really thinks about how the networks work together to provide reliable and redundant communications infrastructure. There are qualities about the internet that make it very vulnerable and it’s totally beyond our comprehension what would happen if there was suddenly a large outage. We have no precedents for understanding this question.
There are ways to talk to an audience that both educates them and makes them wonder about things that are a part of their everyday lives. That’s what I like to try and do. I don’t think much about who the target audience is, I just think about what would fascinate me and try to tell the story in a way that reaches the most people. I find that that’s the best approach.
Do you envision a specific action that a viewer would take after viewing your work?
I’ve worked for and with Mozilla and really respect and appreciate their work. I also understand why it’s part of Mozilla’s thinking to have a clear call for action connected to the various projects that they support. For my work that’s often difficult. A call to action can shut down a process — that is, to simply start thinking about things around you. Telling them what to do next, I feel, is not my job.
I come from a journalistic background so I want to inform people, I want to stimulate their curiousness and knowledge of the world around them — but I don’t want to tell them what to do.
In the Mozilla documentation for the project under which your film was supported, there is mention of how Mozilla will amplify the creators’ works as well as how A/B testing and metrics will be used — like share rates and earned media impressions. Are you at the point where this has been discussed? What are your feelings about tracking metrics?
You start compromising the quality of the work if you think too much about those things in the process of creating it. In order to do well in this type of work, you might have to create something that fails miserably. I happen to believe that if you make a well-crafted story, it will work — and the metrics will be right.
In your context, especially when working with the Snowden documents and state secrets, what does “working open” mean?
It’s an ideal that can be applied to a lot of different processes with benefits, but in some lines of work, it’s often more interesting to see what happens if you don’t open it up. This is not a question of proprietary versus open in terms of software development. In an artistic process — for example working on a film — at times it’s necessary to open things up to get feedback, but there’s also a need to close it up in order to make sure that you have a clear idea that hasn’t been diluted by what others think.
I’ve been extremely lucky to work with Laura Poitras, whose support translates into confidence. She is, in lack of a better word, extremely inspiring in that sense. Sometimes we disagree and I have to continue on my own — and that’s fine, too.On the other hand, I don’t believe I will ever be the monolithic director stereotype of a person who wakes up one day with a perfect idea and then just tells everybody how to do it.
What I’m hearing you talk about is the need for space for creative process, flow, and privacy.
That’s a very practical element of the work we do because, for example, the Snowden documents remain completely offline until publication. That makes it impossible to work openly.
The Mozilla grantees were invited to a workshop at the Copenhagen Documentary Festival where we tried to work on parts of the story in an open environment. It was a very Mozilla-esque workshop where you got feedback and met with people early on in your process. That was difficult for me because I knew what the story was going to be, but I couldn’t tell them. I had to work with a subset of the content that was safe. At times, it felt a bit counterproductive, but it was an exercise that helped me think about the project and ended up giving me a key insight that will be crucial for the final result.
So there’s a lot of value in working open… but part of that value is knowing when not be open, and not thinking about working open as the be-all and end-all approach that will solve all of our issues.
I completely agree.
Shifting now to the broader topic of the internet, what, for you, is a healthy internet?
A healthy internet is one that is open to the widest extent possible and that provides access to the most people. It’s also one that has the potential to level the playing field whenever a player becomes too powerful. So, if giving access to a whole new tier of people in developing countries at the same time solidifies the position of one big player — be it Google or Facebook — it’s important that no roadblocks are built into the technology that might prevent new players from entering that particular market.
This is the strength and the damnation of the internet — it’s great at creating sub-areas that work well for certain people, like Facebook. Facebook works great for me for when I’m going out of town and want to find someone to catsit for me in return for a crashing for free in our Brooklyn apartment. It’s a fantastic tool for many things, but it also creates big areas of the internet that are closed off.
It’s important to keep the internet underpinned by principles that allow for the next Facebook — for the next competitor or a new paradigm that will make the obsolescence of Facebook possible.
In terms of my work, looking at the infrastructure that underpins the internet, there are reasons why that infrastructure ends up in few hands. One of the paradoxical reasons why the internet has become so successful is that it hasn’t been centralized by state or private actors. Whenever that centralization becomes too powerful, we end up having problems.
What has really worked for the internet is an anarchic lack of rules, which is now showing its dark side because of the things that are gaining a foothold and power because of the lack of policing. It’s a big challenge for the open movement that the rules they were propagating for stimulating good things are becoming so commonplace that they are also stimulating the opposite: state-based surveillance, repression, crime, and terrorism in areas of the world that don’t have the same democratic traditions. It’s very difficult to say how you strike the right balance between stimulating the quasi-anarchic qualities that stimulated the internet and web, while at the same time preventing bad things from gaining too much of a foothold due to that anarchic quality.
I’ve worked on a number of projects that deal with what happens when an institution is challenged by the power of networks. Copyright was basically intellectual property content production — what happens when that gets challenged? Likewise, surveillance is about what happens to state power when challenged. That’s basically what we’ve seen with WikiLeaks. The monopolization of truth and knowledge is now under siege — there are daily leaks and hacks reported in the media and it will only get worse. But we’ve also seen WikiLeaks and internet grassroots with opinions and missions that most of the internet elite, I “grew up” in disagree with. We see sexism, racism and hatred finding foothold using the same tools that we naively thought was going to work only for “good” causes.
Lately I hear people saying, “The internet is bad, I don’t want to be on it.” That’s definitely not something you would hear ten or fifteen years ago. We’re at the end of the cycle where the upward spiral in these optimistic movements has peaked and now we’re seeing the backlash, we see the dark side of the libratory potential gaining momentum.
Shifting now to Mozilla, how would you describe them to someone else?
Mozilla is the organization behind the Firefox browser but it’s also an organization that advocates in favor of a free and open web. That’s the short version.
Mozilla is sometimes terribly bad at taking credit for the fantastic things it does behind the scenes. From a very early stage, Mozilla’s work, for example, in net neutrality has been crucial, yet few people know about Mozilla playing a key role early on in a conflict that’s now on everyone’s mind. It’s an organization that involves an enormous amount of talented, dedicated, and good people. Sometimes, it’s not recognized for all of the stuff it’s doing and it has had a general problem with explaining clearly what it does to people who aren’t directly involved in it.
As a documentary filmmaker and someone who’s dealt with storytelling, there’s a documentary, Project Code Rush, about Mozilla’s birth, the events around Netscape, and how Firefox was born, which is really great. I find that moment defines what Mozilla is. It was born out of pressure and a resistance to market logic, to working in a specific and open way. Yet, because it’s also a part of that world, it’s often difficult to clearly provide an authoritative opposite to that system. Sometimes I think it would be really good for Mozilla if a similar crisis arose.
I’d like to know about a time that Mozilla had some sort of impact on your life or your work — can think of a particular anecdote?
Mozilla was very helpful in the SOPA and PIPA events and the things that happened around that legislation, which was a very bad idea. Mozilla really took a clear stance, was good at creating advocacy around it, and had an important role to play in overturning the legislation. Mozilla has also played an important role — and deserves a lot of credit — for having a clear and early view on net neutrality. It has been good at advocating against those that want to change net neutrality.
Mozilla has also provided tools that can be used and built on by others. For example, over the four to five years I’ve been working on surveillance issues, more people who are in a position where they need to think about their privacy beyond what is “normal” — investigative reporters, activists in countries that aggressively monitor the internet, etc. — now use the Tor browser, which is a modified version of Firefox. This is a good thing. It saves lives. Tor is based on Mozilla code and is a crucial piece of privacy infrastructure — and absolutely vital to me when conducting research.
Finally, in journalism, Knight/Mozilla collaborated to support and spin off a lot of really interesting projects. That’s the stuff that has been the most immediately visible to me.
Those are great examples of the broader impact — SOPA, PIPA, and net neutrality are clearly causes that you care about. I’m wondering if anything comes to mind that’s a bit more personal to you, beyond supporting the issues and causes that you care about?
The fact that there is a Tor browser and network is personal for me. I use different browsers for different things. When I research things that I don’t want anyone to tie to my profile, I use the Tor browser. Also, my colleagues and I frequently use OnionShare to send files securely across the Tor network. It was developed by Micah Lee and is relatively unknown, but it’s absolutely brilliant for our purposes.
Mozilla didn’t create Tor or OnionShare but is very much part of the culture and has provided support of a number of levels, apart from building a modifiable browser that Tor builds on.
Thinking about a time when Mozilla disappointed you, what feedback or suggestions would you give them to improve?
When I worked for Mozilla, I was already tuned into the privacy and surveillance topic areas. At the time, I wanted Mozilla to focus and invest in creating privacy tools and free infrastructure. While Mozillians are tuned into the tool side — in particular when it has to do with a browser plugin — there wasn’t much traction when it came to building infrastructure and alternative ways to store and control your private data. Or maybe I was just miserable at building a convincing argument. I tried but often found that it was easier to convince people outside than inside Mozilla that we needed more tools like Tor and Signal messenger.
The problem with Mozilla’s ownership model is that it’s very hard to make drastic changes — because people do their own thing. You have to convince every single contributor.
With network neutrality, Mozilla took a position at a point in time when few people were involved in advocacy and other complicated political and lobbying processes. That’s what you do when you have a clear conviction that is not easy to challenge. So many other areas that Mozilla has dug into and gotten involved in are harder to hold with that same type of rock-solid, clear-cut positioning. That’s understandable for an organization like Mozilla, where you have a lot of volunteers and stakeholders and lead very specific modular projects — but personally I like the Mozilla that fights net neutrality better than the ones that tries to convince you to use Firefox over Chrome.
How about your experience in terms of the grantmaking process, are there things Mozilla could do better?
When I was working for the Mozilla Foundation, I think there were more limitations on which types of projects Mozilla could get involved in because of their status as a nonprofit. Many things were deemed too controversial, too political, too far from the web-centric world view that Firefox lives in. It seems like those things have become more relaxed and that’s a good thing.
I’m getting the sense that you believe that although some of these tensions are baked into the way Mozilla is structured, they’ve been making progress on them. I’m also hearing that the grant experience has been a good one for you.
Yes. I also think that it is an effect of knowing and trusting each other. There’s an understanding that if they support a project of mine with a specific scope, it could turn into something else, and that’s fine. They know me well enough to know that I’m not going to turn around and use their grant funds to to do something that speaks directly against their values — because we pretty much share the same values.