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The Privacy Advisor | Put these privacy-themed movies in your quarantine queue Related reading: Building a modern data protection technology stack




A perplexing phenomenon occurred in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Steven Soderbergh's 2011 film "Contagion" saw a dramatic surge in popularity as countless viewers watched the film for, well, I'm not entirely sure why. Were they looking for pandemic survival tips? To adjust their expectations? Matt Damon? 

Either way, it seemed like the exact opposite of escapism entertainment. Rather than watch a grim pandemic movie during an actual pandemic, here are some privacy-adjacent movies that I, and fellow members of the IAPP Publications Team, have chosen to keep you entertained during your quarantine.

"Rear Window" (1954)

Long before voice assistants or smart appliances were raising privacy concerns, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” prompted the question of how much privacy we can expect in our own homes. Released in 1954, the suspense stars James Stewart, a magazine war photographer who is confined to a wheelchair with a broken leg. Unable to leave his two-room apartment, Stewart’s character is fascinated with watching his neighbors through their windows – becoming convinced one of them has committed murder. This film, and the lack of privacy Jeffries’ neighbors have, unbeknownst to them, has intrigued me from the first time I watched it in high school film class. I hope it’s one you can enjoy, too, during this down time – and remember to close your blinds. 

"The Conversation" (1974)

Sandwiched in between "The Godfather" and "The Godfather Part II" is Francis Ford Coppola's underrated classic about Harry Caul, a surveillance expert who overhears details about a potential murder. As Caul delves deeper into the case, he soon fears the tables have been turned and now he is the one being watched. Featuring an incredible performance by Gene Hackman, a young Harrison Ford and a memorable main theme, "The Conversation" is an outstanding examination into surveillance, paranoia and guilt. (It's spiritual sequel is also recommended below.)

"The Truman Show" (1998)

Jim Carrey's career-best performance came in this 1998 pitch-perfect satire and his Oscar snub is a crime. Carrey plays Truman Burbank, whose life is the subject of a reality show. His every move is documented by countless number of cameras and everyone he has ever known in his life is an actor. Truman literally has no privacy and he doesn't even know it. In fact, he lives in the quintessential smart city. Given the rise of reality television and the increased amount of life documentation via social media, "The Truman Show" is more relevant now than it was 22 years ago.

"Enemy of the State" (1998)

You can't pass up the combination of up-and-coming Will Smith, peak Gene Hackman and privacy themes beyond their time. Enemy of the State depicts the U.S. National Security Agency not only trying to expand its broad surveillance powers via conspiracy, but the agency simultaneously using those powers to cover up the tracks of its shady dealings. The deployment of surveillance here creates an incredibly paranoid Hackman, but also really shows the power of surveillance tools when connected.

"Minority Report" (2002)

"Minority Report” is based on a Philip K. Dick short story from the 1950s. The story is set in the 2050’s and centers around a trio of “precogs” who can see into the future and predict crimes before they happen. They eventually predict the PreCrime commissioner will commit a murder and forces him to go on the run to clear his name. I won’t tell you what happens – you’ll have to watch it for yourself. Sci-fi thriller theme aside, privacy is a secondary theme - safety and convenience prevail over individual privacy in this film.

When the movie premiered in 2002, it seemed unbelievable that the government would track citizen movement using retinal scans or that retail stores could display personalized ads based on shopping history. Fast forward 18 years and personalized ads based on browsing or shopping history show up in your social media feeds and countries such as China allow the use of face scans to pay for groceries or to board the subway. And a number of countries are considering using contact tracing through apps to identify where patients with COVID-19 are located. It’s a good popcorn flick and would recommend. If you have enough time, read the story too.

"The Dark Knight" (2008)

You can sum up "The Dark Knight" as simply "the movie where Batman fights the Joker," but that would be a massive disservice to the best comic book movie of all-time. One recurring plotline in the film involves Bruce Wayne, played by Christian Bale, turning all the cellphones in Gotham City into sonar devices in order to track the Joker, played by Heath Ledger in his Oscar-winning tour de force performance. The ethics of this decision are brought up by Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox and while Batman's decisions around the technology are "somewhat" virtuous, it's not hard to envision a world where a billionaire would not be so benevolent with a massive surveillance system.

"Ex Machina" (2014) 

Caleb Smith is a programmer who works for Blue Book, a fictionalized search engine giant. He wins an office contest to go to the home of the CEO of Blue Book to conduct a Turing test on a humanoid robot. Smith soon learns the robot is powered by an artificial intelligence that learned everything about humanity through inquiries that ran through the search engine. The less you know about the rest of the plot, the better. If you are looking for a slow-burning, twisty, mature sci-fi film that also takes a darker look at big data and AI, look no further.

Photo by Myke Simon on Unsplash

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  • comment Damian Domingo Mapa • Apr 30, 2020
    Where can one find "The Conversation"?
  • comment Ryan Chiavetta • Apr 30, 2020
    Hello Damian,
    You can watch The Conversation for free if you have an Amazon Prime subscription.
  • comment Laura Hennessy • May 21, 2020
    Don't forget Das Leben der Anderen (aka The Lives of Others) This film is set in East Berlin, 1984, this story revolves around an agent of the secret police conducting surveillance on his neighbours.
  • comment Alec Campbell • May 22, 2020
    One of the best privacy movies of all is 2018's Anon ( with Clive Owen and Amanda Fried.