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Privacy Perspectives | Why Batman shouldn't write your privacy notice Related reading: Put these privacy-themed movies in your quarantine queue




I am a firm believer in the idea that there's no wrong way to consume pop culture.

Sometimes life gets you down, and you don't want to watch a harrowing war film or a psychological thriller, and you'd rather watch a movie so you can turn off your mind for a bit.

"Of course I'll watch 'Airplane!' for the 10th time." "Would you like me to share some of my favorite 'Step Brothers' quotes? Too bad; I'm doing it anyway."

There are other times when you crave something of substance — a book, TV show or film in which you can analyze social commentary and religious symbolism while thinking long and hard about just what the creator meant when they concluded their project's ambiguous ending.

Then there are times when your mind superimposes a deeper reading, whether you wanted to or not.

I find this happening to myself far more often than it had in the past, and I don't need to do karate in the garage to figure out why. 

I have been working in the privacy space for almost five years now. In that time, I have read and covered countless stories about massive data breaches, surveillance networks, social media data collection and facial recognition technology. When you spend 40-plus hours a week for years on end learning about the ins and outs of all of these developments, it's going to color your experiences outside of the workplace, whether you want it to or not.

Movies and TV shows I have watched dozens of times all of a sudden take on a new light. Take "The Dark Knight," for example. A major plot point in the movie centers around Batman turning every single cellphone in Gotham into a surveillance apparatus to help catch Heath Ledger's iconic Joker.

This is a movie I had seen countless times before the world of privacy collided with my own. On each viewing, there was never a second thought about the implications of what Bruce Wayne had done, nor did I give much thought to the criticisms of Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox. Here's the exchange:

Batman: Beautiful isn't it?

Lucius Fox: Beautiful ... unethical ... dangerous. You've turned every cellphone in Gotham into a microphone.

Batman: And a high-frequency generator-receiver.

Lucius Fox: You took my sonar concept and applied it to every phone in the city. With half the city feeding you sonar, you can image all of Gotham. This is "wrong."

During earlier viewings, I had a vague understanding of why Fox felt it was "wrong" to launch such a network. Yeah, no one would have any privacy for a little bit of time. And Batman shut it down at the end, so problem solved. 

Until you learn about real-life surveillance systems that are used to track marginalized populations and political protesters. Then you learn about the other types of surveillance captured via facial recognition and how those technologies have been abused. The noble superhero isn't always at the controls of the massive dragnet. An unsettling realization if there ever was one.

And even though Batman is on the side of law and order, that doesn't mean there aren't concerns about surveillance technology when it's in the hands of the "good guys." Law enforcement agencies around the world have operated their own massive surveillance networks, whether it's what we learned from the disclosures from Edward Snowden to recent reports of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police attempted cover-up of their own spying practices. Just because surveillance is done in the name of justice, doesn't necessarily make it right.

It's also obvious Batman totally disrespects the concept of "consent." You're opting in whether you like it or not, Gotham.

Privacy is embedded in my way of thinking now, and while I enjoy putting media under this lens if it's worth the effort, there are other times when that signal tells me certain entertainment deserves the hardest of passes.

Fox recently ran "NEXT," a show about artificial intelligence that grows sentient and attempts to conquer the world. At least that's what I think it was about. I saw one commercial and immediately decided I will never, ever watch this show. Conversations about algorithmic discrimination and other misuses of the technology are depressing enough. I don't need to add apocalyptic scenarios to the list.

Or take "Songbird," an odious, tone-deaf upcoming movie that asks viewers a simple question: "What if the COVID-19 pandemic got even worse?"

The premise of the movie is the COVID-19 pandemic has gone on for four years, and now death squads come and abduct sick patients and send them to camps where they go to die. It's as though someone took all the news stories on contact tracing and decided to produce a story on its worst-case scenario.

I saw the preview just once and two thoughts popped into my head. The first was that the U.S. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act is apparently going to be thrown in the trash within the next four years. The other was how anyone would find this to be entertaining. It's a reprehensible project, and everyone involved should be ashamed. But hey, what else should I expect from known pyrotechnic-zealot and hater of all things tasteful, Michael Bay?

Privacy is a part of my lens now, and I've known this for some time. What I have thought about recently was why privacy grafted itself onto my brain when the other industries I've worked in have not. Before coming to the IAPP, I worked in health care for three years. Yet, I don't find myself turning to it when I am on the couch.

Privacy is more ubiquitous than health care in my daily life. It's more ubiquitous because of the role data now plays in our everyday lives. The world runs on data and, thus, its protection has never been more vital.

Once you understand the weight data plays in our society, you really begin to notice how much it permeates the culture in which we consume and take part. After you've broken down that barrier, you truly understand why you don't want Batman drafting up your privacy notice.

Photo by Delaney Van on Unsplash

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