The Circle joins other movies about privacy, secrets and surveillance

Emma Watson in The Circle

Privacy is in the news again. One recent story tells how Uber worked around Apple’s rules for apps to track individual phones, even after an individual deleted the app.

That story has been rebutted by Uber, but it’s reopened concerns about how we are tracked through the super-computers we willingly carry around in our pockets or purses. That same story included the revelation that Unroll.me, a service that lets one mass-unsubscribe from email lists, was selling user information and data to Uber — information it gleaned because. in order to use it. you have to connect it to your email account. That was a stark reminder that with free services, you’re the product being sold.

Privacy has been a long-running theme in movies throughout the history of Hollywood. The idea that we’re all being spied on and surveilled in various ways has made for rich fodder for filmmakers to feast on, playing on our fears that someone at any given time is watching.

This week’s new release The Circle is just the latest example of that. The movie, based on Dave Eggers’ 2013 book of the same name, stars Emma Watson as Mae, a young woman who lucks into an entry-level job at Circle, a massive tech company that’s a search engine, social network and more, basically Google + Facebook with other startups mixed in as well. She becomes entangled in the inner-workings of the company and is shown by Ty (John Boyega) that the ultimate goal of the company, especially founder Bailey (Tom Hanks) may not be as altruistic as Circle’s public image would have people believe.

With The Circle’s message of “knowing everything is better” in front of us now and feeling immediately relevant as we click more and more “I agree to these terms of service” boxes without reading them, not knowing where our digital activities are being tracked, it’s a good time to look back at some of Hollywood’s previous efforts to convey privacy issues.

The Conversation

Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 drama stars Gene Hackman in one of his finest roles as Harry Caul, a professional bugger with a sterling reputation for recording conversations in public parks, hotel rooms and anywhere else.

The trailer not only shows off how he’s a widely-respected professional but also how emotionally detached he is from his work, not worrying about what happens after he turns in the tapes. That all changes one day, though, when he becomes concerned about the fates of a young couple he’s been recording for reasons he’s never been interested in. That change in perspective is explained a bit in the the trailer but the reasons for his crisis of conscience are even laid out on the poster, which explains that three people are dead because of his work.

Snowden

When this was being sold last year, the entire campaign was designed to take most all of the moral ambiguity out of the actions of Edward Snowden (played by Joseph Gordon Levitt). The trailer and most of the rest of the marketing shows how Snowden was taking a morally righteous stance in removing secret files related to digital tracking from the NSA and release them to the press/public. It was sold to the public as the world we live in right now, telling the story of how it took one brave man to shine a light on the evil, intrusive actions being taken by the government. There are plenty of shots of Snowden hushing his girlfriend out of a fear of being heard, of him worrying about the laptop camera that’s on the table while they’re being intimate and more. The key line, though, comes as he’s being told that most people want security, not freedom, to which Snowden replies “People don’t even know they’ve made that bargain.”

Rear Window

The privacy intrusions on display in Rear Window, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 masterpiece, are much smaller in scale than a government-run program of worldwide monitoring.

Rear Window, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 masterpiece

Instead, it’s just about how one man L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart), becomes a snoop outside his own back window. With both legs broken by a recent accident, Jeffries is bored at home and so with the help of his binoculars begins watching the neighbors in the building across the way. One day, he begins to suspect one man has murdered his wife, though he has no evidence to prove that. So he enlists his girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) to help investigate where he, confined to a wheelchair, can’t. While the trailer does show how Jeffries becomes a one-man neighborhood watch, assigning names, personalities and backstories to everyone he’s watching, it’s more focused on selling audiences the Hitchcock experience.

Minority Report

The surveillance on display in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report takes on two forms.

First, there’s the technological. Throughout the movie we see examples of how citizens are scanned and tracked everywhere they go, from the subway to the shopping mall. That makes it easy for stores to provide a personalized, if automated, experience to anyone looking to add a shirt to the slacks they bought last week but it makes it hard for Tom Cruise’s John Anderton to go on the run from the authorities.

Second, there’s the idea that the pre-cogs, those who can sense the present and future and read emotions, are snooping on us at all times and the system is making assumptions based on those emotions. Are we guilty of something we thought about doing but haven’t actually done yet? That’s the core question of the movie and the one that’s given primary placement in the trailer, which largely eschews the futuristic tech in favor of chase sequences.

Enemy of the State

Considering Gene Hackman’s role in this 1998 thriller it was, at the time, widely seen as a spiritual sequel to The Conversation.

Hackman plays Brill, a former spy who now tries to live as off-the-grid as he can. That’s complicated when he becomes involved with Robert Dean (Will Smith), a Washington lawyer who has unknowingly been slipped a tape of the killing of a high-profile politician. Dean goes on the run to stay ahead of the NSA spooks who are after him and it’s largely through the help of Brill that he learns how to evade surveillance via phone, traffic cameras, satellites and other technology.

While the tools being used here may seem a bit dated in comparison to something like Snowden, the ideas are roughly similar, that the government is tracking us at all times and can use that information for whatever means it sees fit. That’s not so much the story that’s being sold in the trailer, which barely includes Hackman’s character and which is more focused on showing Smith as the wise-cracking everyman that was his persona after Independence Day and Men in Black. Still, there’s plenty here to keep this on the list of conspiracy-minded movie fans.

Sneakers

Robert Redford’s Martin Bishop leads a group of misfits who are hired by banks and other organizations to test their corporate security in this light, jazzy 1992 comedy.

The group includes a former CIA intelligence operative (Sidney Portier), a conspiracy nut (Dan Ackroyd), a blind computer hacker (David Straithairn) and others. One day the stakes are upped when they become involved in the search for a device that can break all the codes, from encryption at the FBI to access to the national power grid.

Other interested parties include Marty’s old friend Cosmo (Ben Kingsley), who’s using his own considerable hacking prowess to help some shady underworld figures. “Too many secrets” we’re told throughout the campaign, including the trailer, which sells not only the comedic but thriller elements of the story while also making it clear that the stakes at play include the secrets that keep us safe.

What will be interesting to see is how these sorts of stories about the intrusion on our everyday lives technology represents are portrayed in the future.

After all, many of the major movie and TV studios (and book publishers) are run or owned by companies that are actively engaged in the sort of tracking these stories warn us about. In other words, how eager will Studio X be to portray digital tracking as a danger to our private lives when other divisions rely on advertising revenue from just that sort of tracking?

These and other movies, from across the past 60+ years, tell us to draw our curtains, cover our laptop cameras and pay a little bit more attention before we agree to a new social network’s terms of service.

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