Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Ethics of Surveillance: a comparison of two Gene Hackman thrillers

Two films I watched over Thanksgiving week revolved around the theme of surveillance. Since both films are related in the main actor, Gene Hackman, I thought it would be worth comparing and contrasting the two against the backdrop of the theme.

The Conversation, directed by Francis Ford Coppola in 1974, is a subtle thriller, whereas Enemy of the State (EOTS), directed by Tony Scott in 1998, is a loud and non-subtle action film. Coppola is a master of the epic, such as his Godfather trilogy, but ratchets things back in his film to give a psychological character study of the effects of surveillance on the voyeuristic viewer himself. In contrast, Scott makes fast-paced, glossy action films with panache (e.g. Top Gun). Scott’s superficiality contrasts with Coppola’s depth.

The films are as much a product of their times as they are a product of their directors. The Conversation was set against the backdrop of the close of the Vietnam War (1975) and the Watergate conspiracy and scandal (1972). It was a time of gloom and doom in the United States and warranted quiet introspection. Not all was what we had been told. Misinformation seemed to be the name of the game. That comes out in Coppola’s film. In contrast, the late 1990s was a time of explosive technological development. Cell phones were beginning to become ubiquitous and their second generation technology would be replaced by third generation in 2001. The dot-com bubble was expanding rapidly (before popping in 2000). It was a time of hope and trust in technology even as it gained ground toward becoming omnipresent. Scott’s film bears that gloss and glitz, the sheen of technology. It’s loud and long, another feature of Hollywood films in this era.

Both films feature a quiet, private main character played by Hackman. In The Conversation it is Harry Caul, a pathologically private person who won’t even tell his girlfriend where he works. In EOTS it is Brill, an ex-spy who understands the uses and abuses of technical surveillance and lives off the grid to avoid such abuses. (Indeed, EOTS uses images of Brill from The Conversation as younger versions of Brill.) Both have workplaces in semi-abandoned warehouses, where they keep their own technical gadgets protected in locked cages.

The effects of the privacy on Caul were detailed in my blog of The Conversation. They were crucial, leading to his isolation and loneliness. I did not dwell on this aspect of EOTS, but Brill, too, has chosen to live alone, apart from any friends or loved ones due to his paranoia of the danger he would bring to others if he formed relationships. Such privacy severely and savagely damages the psyche. We see this in The Conversation in the concluding scene and Brill tells us about it in EOTS.

In The Conversation, Brill has to work with three audio recordings to discover what a young couple is saying. Using reel-to-reel tape, he manipulates each, adjusting the sound levels of each to get the real conversation. Scott uses an almost identical scene in EOTS. Three thugs with microphones try to capture a key conversation. Here, though, the technology has changed. Reel-to-reel tape has been supplanted by digital devices.

Despite this parallel, the main plot devices in the two films reflect the technology of the times. Coppola’s film is centered on the audio tapes capturing the conversation, while Scott’s film focuses on a digital videotape capturing a murder. One is auditory, leading itself to a misunderstanding due to contextual misapplication; the words are disconnected and lack overall meaning in and of themselves. The other is visual, leading to clarity and no misunderstanding if actually seen.

That brings us to two ethical questions regarding surveillance. The first relates to its foundation. The second relates to its responsibility to act. Is it ethically appropriate to undertake surveillance? To ask this another way, can we use modern technology to listen in or capture videos of other people? Clearly, if we are in public we cannot be prevented from using our gadgets and gear to record others. (How we use these recordings is a different issue – see the second question below.) Traffic cameras do this all the time. But if go one step further and plant devices, bugs or hidden cameras, in other people’s property or places we violate their privacy. That cannot be condoned without authorized permission, such as a court order for a federal wiretap.

If we have conducted surveillance, assuming it is ethical, do we have an ethical duty or obligation to take action based on this information? Do we have a responsibility? In The Conversation, Caul interpreted the conversation to indicate the young couple would soon be murdered, and he struggled to decide on what to do. Ultimately, he chose a course of no action. He did not take personal responsibility and murder occurred. Should he have done differently? Absolutely! But where he does take action is only in his dreams. In his real life, he falters and fails. If we invade others’ privacy, even in public, we bear a responsibility to take action if we believe a crime may occur. Such action might include taking the evidence to law enforcement. If law enforcement is involved, it might include taking it to the press, or even to those about to be injured.

What about unethical surveillance? Suppose we bug a building or plant a hidden camera and discover a crime or one soon to happen, then what? Well, this is an unlikely scenario, since if we are willing to commit such a crime, we would be unlikely to feel any qualms of social responsibility.  More likely, we would take action determined by our own personal agenda; in other words, what would help me! That was the case in EOTS, when certain players in the NSA turned rogue and tried to destroy the surveillance evidence gathered via legitimate means. Their illegitimate and unethical surveillance was used to try to destroy and further their own goals. But hopefully, this is a scenario not applicable to any of my readers.

Copyright ©2012, Martin Baggs

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