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May 01, 2013

Privacy in Hollywood

by Alexander Wohl

FADE IN: A U.S. military encampment deep in the hills of Afghanistan.

An intensely focused General David Petraeus sits in front of a laptop tapping furiously on a keyboard and mouthing the words as he types.

Petraeus: [CENSORED]

CUT TO: FBI headquarters. An agent sits at his terminal, reading from the screen, while taking notes.

FBI Agent: Boss, you’re not going to believe this. . . .

FBI Chief: Another spy problem?

FBI Agent (hesitating): Uhh. No. It’s Petraeus, sir.

FBI Chief (groaning): Not again. What did he say this time?

FBI Agent: It’s embarrassing, sir.

FBI Chief: Never mind. How did we get it?

FBI Agent: Caught it fair and square. Fake Gmail account, notes sent by the mistress to the other woman who we thought might be a security threat.

FBI Chief: Hmmm. This all seemed a lot easier when we just went through people’s garbage.


While it is unlikely that we will be forced to endure even a Lifetime Network drama about the Petraeus scandal, the interaction of technology and privacy is a recurring theme in our popular entertainment. From the success of NBC’s Ripped from the Headlines brand on Law and Order, to Showtime’s Homeland, Zero Dark Thirty, the much talked about film concerning the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and Skyfall, the most recent James Bond movie, Hollywood has regularly embraced plots both accurate and outlandish in this area.

This focus says as much about society’s concerns with the legal and moral issues relating to privacy and security as it does about the dramatic possibilities. The Social Network (2010), the dramatic rendering of Mark Zuckerberg’s creation of Facebook, focused not simply on Zuckerberg’s business acumen or his legal battles with the Winklevoss twins, but on broader questions surrounding the understanding (and exploitation) of the growing willingness and desire of college students to reveal private information about themselves, as well as in developing advertisements based on personal traits revealed through new technologies.

This new openness—call it the evolution of Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame—often involves the lighter side of governmental intrusion into individual privacy. Films like Ed TV, the 1999 Ron Howard comedy starring Matthew McConaughy, anticipated this (as well as a good deal of reality television) in its look at how one life could be thrown into chaos when put on camera.

But there is also a long history in Hollywood of dramatizing more illicit invasions of privacy. Perhaps the most famous was Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window (1954), in which a wheelchair-bound Jimmy Stewart views what he believes to be a murder in an apartment on the other side of the courtyard. Stewart’s technology of choice for this privacy invasion—the telescopic lens on his camera. It is a theme copied in a number of other movies, including the voyeuristic approach of Brian DePalma’s Body Double (1984), in which the “hero” uses a telescope from a mountaintop house he is staying in to watch what he believes is a murder.

Other films have addressed legal and moral questions through police or government spying on individuals or the population at large. Enemy of the State, for instance, a 1998 drama starring Will Smith and Gene Hackman, focused on congressional efforts to increase the power of certain intelligence agencies to conduct surveillance. The plot is complicated when, in an effort to guarantee the bill’s passage, National Security Agency officials engage in a murder that itself is caught on a video camera.

A more recent, though far less plausible, approach to this kind of “Big Brother” activity is Eagle Eye (2008), which starred Shia LeBouf as the ne’er-do-well brother of a military hero, who gets thrown into a terrorist plot as the result of a computer run amok that “learns” to control virtually every aspect of society, from traffic lights to the military.

The modern gold standard for drama about modern technology and police power is the television show 24. Each season of the show, which ran from 2001–10, represented one day in the life of federal counterterrorism agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland). And each hour in that day was chock full of every imaginable type of controversial police action, from surveillance cameras, to drones, to torture. The show generated not just water-cooler conversation, but its own industry of legal analysis, including newspaper editorials, law review articles, and even a law school course.

At its core, the best of this entertainment raises important questions about human individualism, independence, and privacy, but not necessarily through espionage or adventure. Movies like The Truman Show (1998), for instance, which starred Jim Carrey as an insurance salesman who figures out that his entire life has been the creation of a TV show, or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), in which Carrey and Kate Winslet undergo a procedure to erase from their minds thoughts about each other, address these issues, but with humor, rather than police drama.

These are generally the exception, however, with the majority of films and TV shows being action-adventures, with an additional dollop of science fiction. One of the best that combines these genres isMinority Report (2002), based on the Philip Dick short story and starring Tom Cruise as a member of a special futuristic police force charged with accosting criminals before events happen based on information gathered from psychics known as “precogs.” The story not only implicates current legal and moral questions, but does so in way that offers us a glimpse of our future by including many “fictional” technologies used today, such as an optical recognition system, individualized public advertising, retina scanners, facial recognition software, crime prediction software, and even insect robot drones.

But perhaps most relevant (and disconcerting) is the argument the movie makes for society’s legal structure, which prohibits the accused from mounting a defense. It is troubling not simply because it stands in contrast to our own system, but because it employs an approach often used as a means of cutting constitutional corners within our system. That result- oriented argument? “It works.”