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I fall into a special subset of privacy-aware individuals labeled by some as "privacy paranoid." I carefully read the terms of service for any app I download to my phone and leave location tracking off unless I need some directions. I ask friends not to tag me in photos until we've left the location. I walk my family members through each update on their social media accounts and alert them to tech news I believe they would find creepy. In a world where I am already highly aware of being tracked and monitored on a nearly continuous basis, the near-future lens of "The Circle" feels like a miss; the film feels completely behind the times in its conversations surrounding tech risks.

The film posits a world where one’s financial information, health records, and social media presence have all been subsumed into a single company's control: The Circle. Leaving aside the nightmarish data storage and transfer requirements for this company (its phalanx of privacy pros is conspicuously absent from the film), this leads to data so interconnected and inextricably linked to individuals that the concept of real privacy rapidly disappears. The death of privacy appears to be of no concern to our protagonist, Mae, played by Emma Watson. 

A new employee of The Circle, Mae enters a world in which she is always connected, always at work, and can climb the corporate ladder by instantly and enthusiastically believing everything her boss says. So far, this sounds pretty much like the world we already inhabit, right? The film starts to look like a parody of Silicon Valley as it emphasizes the “cool layout” of the compound, the many amenities employees receive that are designed to allow them to stay at work indefinitely, and the emphasis on keeping up with social media and in-office correspondence.

In due course, The Circle moves toward surveilling the world. This advance is in furtherance of the motto espoused by leader and public face of The Circle, Eamon Bailey, played by Tom Hanks: “Knowing is good, but knowing everything is better.” It is only after a series of increasingly creepy, Orwellian oversteps and the full breakdown of people close to her that Mae finally realizes there may be repercussions to this total-transparency approach.

The film is chock-full of actors performing extremely well. Tom Hanks uses his innate likeability powerfully as a clearly manipulative frontman that we like in spite of ourselves. Emma Watson tries mightily to make Mae a winning protagonist, despite the character’s unbearable thickness, preventing her from seeing signs of trouble. John Boyega is compelling, though wildly underused in his role. Patton Oswalt and Bill Paxton are excellent side characters as a sinister company leader and Mae’s father struggling with a recent MS diagnosis, respectively.

The problem with "The Circle’s" story is that it completely ignores the incredibly rich history of debate about privacy, security, and transparency. In the film’s world, it apparently does not even occur to people that there could be a downside to all of this surveillance. When The Circle produces tiny cameras that can be placed anywhere and publicly streamed in order to ensure "total transparency" (because, as the company says, privacy is theft, and secrets are lies), not a single employee in the amphitheater seems concerned or aware that this would prompt serious cultural blowback and debate. Is this not the same post-Snowden, tape-over-laptop-cameras world that we live in? The complete lack of awareness in the script regarding the arguments for protecting privacy goes beyond lack of awareness and borders on nonsensical.

Though "The Circle" could have presented a fresh approach to questions about the balance of privacy and security, it gets too lost in its attempt to serve as an action film to deliver a clear thesis. Is transparency an insidious power grab or is it the ultimate good for society? Does transparency necessarily mean no privacy ever? Is a more open world actually more secure? 

Not only does the film not answer these questions, it seems unable to clearly ask them. Privacy pros hoping that "The Circle" will add new ideas to the discussions around privacy and security will be disappointed. Audiences simply looking for a good time at the movies ... well, Tom Hanks makes a really good villain.

2 Comments

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  • comment Annie Bai • May 24, 2017
    Nice movie review, Calli, thanks for sharing.  The book glossed over these issues, that's likely the source of many of these problems.  It's too bad, but there is bound to be more treatment of this issue in the entertainment biz.
  • comment Calli Schroeder • May 24, 2017
    Annie, I completely agree.  The book skimmed these areas and the movie, with the changes they made from the book, seemed to have even less to say about privacy and transparency.  I totally agree that this issue is not over and I'm interested to see how it's addressed in the future.