Privacy and Surveillance on Film: Seven Movies Worth Watching This Summer

Debating on your next summer flick? The drive-in scene might be dead, but there's still something about fresh popcorn and late night movie. Fortunately for film buffs, stories that explore loss of privacy has become the subject of more that a few fictional blockbusters.... and increasingly, real life drama & documentary. So grab a snack, snuggle up next to a loved one, and settle in: for your entertainment and even a little education, here are 7 movies that deal in privacy & surveillance.


1. Snowden (2016)

A biopic on Edward Snowden, it's not hard to see why this film made the list. A former contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA), in 2013 Snowden leaked to the press information about the government's illegal mass surveillance actions. The movie starts with Edward (played by actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meeting with representatives from The Guardian in Hong Kong, to discuss the release of classified information. The film then backtracks, going over Edward Snowden's life and the actions that lead to his fateful decision. While praised more for the acting than storyline, the movie highlights a cornerstone of modern privacy history that is still ongoing: charged with theft of government property and two counts of espionage, Edward Snowden remains outside of the United States seeking asylum. With opinions varying between if he should be pardoned or fully persecuted in the United States, what will happen next in his story remains to be seen.


2. Enemy of the State (1998)

Released well over ten years prior, hard to watch this film after the Snowden revelations of 2013 and wonder if someone in Hollywood wasn’t a little to close to the truth. A NSA official meets with a U.S. Congressman to push through a new bill that dramatically increases surveillance powers. When the Congressman remains adamant about blocking the bill, NSA agents have him killed... only to discover that the murder has been captured on film by a wildlife researcher, and passed on to unawares lawyer Robert Clayton Dean (actor Will Smith). This movie is all about government surveillance gone wrong: from the opening plot, to false evidence on Dean that rips apart his life and sends him on the run. Given that even the most advanced references to bugging and intelligence tools used in the film are outdated by current standards, it would be curious to see how a remake of this movie would go.


3. Gattaca (1997)

Between owning your data, and facial recognition sharing your child's memories of summer camp, we may need a faster wake-up call that the future of biometrics is here, being used in ways that make science fiction seem closer to reality. Such is the case with Gattaca, a movie that while definitely science fiction feels less and less impossible as the years go by, with increases in both biological analysis of who we are and algorithms making choices based on that data. In Gattaca, hero Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) finds himself dismissed from most career choices having in-valid genetics. Determined, Vincent joins space program Gattaca using the purchase of 'valid' DNA to commit identity fraud. In joining Gattaca, Vincent finds himself increasingly in a world of genetic assumptions gone wrong. Least it be forgotten, in 2011 this film was named by NASA as the most scientifically possible science fiction movie.


4. Terms and Conditions May Apply (2013)

Terms and Conditions May Apply is intended to showcase just how much corporations and government entities can determine from the data we freely provide online service providers and cell phone telecommunications. Unlike some of the other films on this list, Terms and Conditions is a documentary of what is happening to privacy now, rather than a fictional state-surveillance dystopia. Director Cullen Hoback focuses on the data and insights legally granted to corporations through misguiding privacy policies and terms of use, an issue that continues to be of contention and with new laws such as the GDPR specifically addressing the need for clear, natural language. Hoback is particularly critical of internet giants Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and Amazon, offering a warning of why users should always be careful before clicking “I agree.”


5. The Conversation (1974)

By far the oldest film on this list, The Conversation takes on issues of privacy with a very different twist, when a private surveillance expert is hired to spy on a young couple, and suffers a crisis of faith when he believes the information recorded will lead to grave consequences. The film is subterfuge of spy vs spy, where everyone is listening in. The film has been described as an intellectual thriller, with Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) as the private agent who gets too deep in a job calling he perhaps should never have found, and begs the question of how much we really want to know about the affairs of others anyway.


6. V for Vandetta (2005)

Given the premise, vigilante story and actress Natalie Portman, I still wonder why I didn't see Vandetta originally in theatres, instead of as Netflix night in. The movie adapted from an Alan Moore graphic novel of the same name, it takes place in 2027, where a dystopian London England has been ripped apart by warfare and pandemic virus to become a totalitarian state. The masked vigilante 'V' (Hugo Weaving) saves national broadcast employee Evey (Portman) from the secret police, who herself starts to step back and question the world they're living in. Much can be and has been said of this film, including the obvious political undertones and V's extremely questionable actions using terrorist methods to instigate change. Privacy enthusiasts will immediately key into the display and commentary of government surveillance in this film: free speech and thought no longer exist in V or Evey's world, and the loss of privacy are huge casualties. In order to control its citizens, the government keeps significant tabs on all information developed and transmitted under their power, including patrols that regularly scan the airwaves to listen in on conversations. In addition to the original book, V for Vendetta is also slated for a television release, although no news beyond the original announcement in 2017 has been released.


7. Charlie's Angels (2000).

This last one might seem like an odd choice to the list: certainly the Charlie's Angels franchise is far more lighthearted and camp than the rest of the films featured here. Yet it's the film's lighthearted attitude and fun that make it stand out on this list: it's enjoyable to see a film that doesn't take itself too seriously. When genius developer Eric Knox (Sam Rockwell) is kidnapped along with his voice DNA software by cellphone and communications tycoon Roger Corwin (Tim Curry), William Townsend infamous private detective and rescue agency is on the job. The Angels (Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, Lucy Liu) have a clear task ahead: rescue the hostage, and steal back the dangerous technology from the bad guy’s grip or every cell phone in the world becomes a homing device. Bonus points go to this film for all of the Angels's cheeky but effective work-arounds of biometric technology and safeguards. The bypassing of fingerprint scanners via lifting prints from a beer bottle might seem too easy to be true, but given that such scanners have been fooled by gummy bears, not implausible. With word out of another remake for this famous franchise, it will be fascinating to see if recognizable newer technologies, such as 3D printing, are adapted into the angels’ access workarounds.


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