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Canada publishes its top-ten list of privacy films – let the controversy commence!

By Simon Davies

The Office of the Federal Privacy Commissioner of Canada has just published its excellent list of top-ten privacy films – and I have to say the selection has left me scratching my head a little. Not only were many of the usual suspects not on there, but I have never even seen most of the winners.

No-one should have any doubt about the importance of cultural references to privacy.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m quite a fan of the Canadian federal office. Like many of the provincial Commissioners it has cultivated a powerful sense of cultural engagement with the real world which has done wonders for privacy. To some extent Canadian regulators lead public opinion, so I would regard any film selection by them as a serious matter for careful consideration. They are such a refreshing change from the dusty judicial environment you find in many regulator’s offices.

No-one should have any doubt about the importance of cultural references to privacy. George Orwell should have sealed that conversation closed. Still, I guess how you fashion any top-ten list depends on interpretation.

First, here’s the Canadian list, with their own commentary:

Louis 19, le roi des ondes (King of the Airways)
The only comedy on our list, Louis 19 traces the path of Louis Jobin, a man initially thrilled to be chosen as the star of a reality TV show, only to discover that celebrity is not all it’s cracked up to be. Released in 1994, the movie predated the onslaught of reality TV shows, social networking sites and the concept of micro-celebrity.

A Scanner Darkly
Like a few of the other films on this list, A Scanner Darkly takes place in the not-too-distant-future, where surveillance is ubiquitous and constant. Based on the Philip K. Dick novel and directed by Richard Linklater, this film also considers notions of identity, and how the effects of surveillance on identity.

Caché (Hidden)
This Austrian-French thriller follows the lives of the Laurent family as they attempt to determine who has been secretly videotaping them. Released in 2005, the film has won numerous awards and earned global accolades from film critics.

The Conversation has been praised for its “remarkably advanced arguments about technology’s role in society that still resonate today.”

The Conversation
Gene Hackman plays a plays a paranoid and brilliant surveillance expert in this 1974 film which may or not be the precursor to another movie which didn’t quite make our cut, Enemy of the State. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, The Conversation has been praised for its “remarkably advanced arguments about technology’s role in society that still resonate today.”

Gattaca
Gattaca brings the themes of privacy and surveillance to the sub-atomic level. In this version of the not-too-distant-future, DNA plays a major role in determining future profession, potential mates and social class.

Minority Report
Before starting production, director Steven Spielberg assembled a group of futurists to get a handle on what the year 2054 might look like.

The Lives of Others
Released in 2006. A Stasi agent takes an interest in a couple living in East Berlin and begins to monitor them – at first, with the intention of determining their loyalty to the Socialist Unity Party, but then increasingly for his own personal interest in their lives.

1984
George Orwell’s modern classic was brought to the big screen for a second time in 1984. (The first film adaptation was made in 1956.) Like all good cultural memes, this one introduced several new words and phrases into our vocabulary, including Big Brother, thoughtcrime, and memoryhole.

Rear Window
Man breaks leg, gets bored, spies on neighbours – high jinx ensue. The high-tech surveillance techniques featured in many of the other films on this list are nowhere to be found in this classic Hitchcock mystery.

Red Road
This Scottish film follows a CCTV operator who actively monitors a man from her past. Director Andrea Arnold has said her depiction of Glasgow as a city under constant surveillance was meant to provoke a debate about the use of CCTV networks.

One enduring lesson of the film is its clear message that surveillance has become a design component in all information technology. Data collection is now viewed as a “value added” element of IT systems.

OK, now I need to be brutally honest here. I have never seen King of the Airwaves, A Scanner Darkly, Cashé, the Lives of Others, Rear Window or Red Road. My god, that’s six of their top-ten which are currently off my cultural radar screen. That’s terrible. and you can bet this will be rectified within the month.

Strangely though, my top-ten coincides with Canada’s in only three titles – Ninety Eighty-Four, Minority Report and Gattica. I wold have added at least two to the list:

V for Vendetta. A drama set in the near future about a vigilante attack on a tyrannical UK government. This film introduces profound messages about the importance of privacy and anonymity.

Enemy of the State. I’m stunned this one isn’t on Canada’s list, even though it received an honourable mention. This is the tale, set in the present, of the NSA’s attempts to destroy the life of a campaigning lawyer. It is, in essence, a primer on modern surveillance technologies.

“Enemy of the State” is notable for a number of reasons. Most obvious amongst these is its often accurate portrayal of then “high end” technologies used by police and security agencies. But the most important element of the film is probably its’ focus on the absence of oversight or democratic process over such agencies. The illegal activities against the innocent lawyer, Robert Dean, were disguised as an “FBI Training Operation” – a mandate which could never be checked by an outside authority. The ability of the NSA to interface at will with private sector organisations was also featured. At one point, NSA operatives masqueraded as Washington DC police to gain access to information from a city camera network. The Agency could, likewise, access banking records, telephone records and government agency files.

One enduring lesson of the film is its clear message that surveillance has become a design component in all information technology. Data collection is now viewed as a “value added” element of IT systems. Systems architects are required to design technology which will capture, analyse and present personal information. Surveillance by government sits at the core of communications systems. Telecommunications companies are required by law to ensure that their equipment is “wiretap friendly”.

Surveillance and privacy will doubtless continue to permeate film, but I wonder about the reference points that writers and directors could use when surveillance is invisible and ubiquitous.

The film and television media have traditionally utilised themes of surveillance and control. The 1920’s Fritz Laing classic “Metropolis” was followed by a string of lesser known films portraying dominion over the individual. The 1960s television series “The Prisoner” and the British series “The Avengers” employed dramatic images of the abuse of knowledge and power over the individual. These themes in later decades were fuelled by images created by contemporary science fiction writers such as Douglas Adams, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the film industry refined the genre of movies based on the theme of state surveillance and control, focussing on information technology. The most celebrated of these, Michael Radford’s adaption of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, reinvigourated a classic. From this successful project sprang a number of other films including Brazil, Neuromancer, The Running Man, Rollerball, Long Kiss Goodnight, and Enemy of the State.

Visual surveillance has been a constant theme throughout this most recent generation of films. The technology lends itself perfectly to the medium of film, and provides a simple and powerful device to depict the power of authority. The evolution of the fifth utility provides an ideal armoury of ideas and images for film makers.

Surveillance and privacy will doubtless continue to permeate film, but I wonder about the reference points that writers and directors could use when surveillance is invisible and ubiquitous. What happens when surveillance is seamless and is uninterrupted by messy hardware? There is a limit to how much longer this topic can be represented by 1980’s images of CCTV cameras and central databases.

November 19, 2012