Cast member Tom Hanks poses at the premiere of "Sully" in Los Angeles, California U.S., September 8, 2016. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

‘The Circle’ May Be Sci-fi, but It’s Far from Fiction

Though a less-than-stellar film, Tom Hanks' new thriller poses real concerns about privacy issues with personal data.

Data Dilemma

Though a less-than-stellar film, Tom Hanks’ new thriller poses real concerns about privacy issues with personal data.

By Timothy K. DesJarlais, University of Arizona

“The Circle” may not have set any box office records, but its attempt to tackle the issue of online privacy in an increasingly public universe deserves a second look.

Released earlier this year, “The Circle” quickly garnered backlash and was dismissed as a poorly done movie. I, for one, was undeterred, intrigued as I was by the claims that the film resembled a modern-day “1984.” While I would agree with critics that “The Circle” left much to be desired, especially when it came to plot direction and the depth of its characters, I was very intrigued by the ideas behind the motion picture.

The modern-day George Orwell film is set in the not-too-distant future and follows the life of Mae (Emma Watson), a young woman who gets a dream job working as an employee for a tech giant called the Circle. The movie follows her path through the company and how she ends up embracing the company’s mission of completely erasing privacy. The Circle’s smooth-talking CEO, Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), pushes the notion that “sharing is caring, secrets are lies, and privacy is theft.” He and the company’s leaders have embraced the utopian notion that if everyone knows that they are always being watched, they will be forced to embrace their better side.

Watson in ‘The Circle’ (Image via Aceshowbiz)

However, after the technology leads to the death of her boyfriend, Mae discovers that the company has been gathering data from its millions of users. The company is clearly a parody of Apple, with their campus being a large circular structure that resembles Apple’s new tech campus, and while many of the computers look like Macs, the Apple logo was replaced with the Circle’s logo.

Beyond the subtle similarities, the film also presents a scenario in which a social media company has become too powerful and people’s privacy is invaded. Here, however is one of my main critiques of the movie in that, while it becomes apparent how powerful the Circle is, there are really no major examples of the company using the data for sinister purposes, nor are there any details as to what the real plans of the company’s founders were for this data.

So while the delivery was certainly flawed and the movie less than par, the questions it raises concerning privacy and data are some that I believe should be discussed. Too often, you hear about the evils of big business, whether it is mining companies, foresting companies, oil drilling companies or massive banks. However, corporations with vast monopolies on information, such as Google and Facebook, do not receive the same negative press. Perhaps, it is because these companies seem harmless, and even their corporate cultures are inclusive and encouraging of creative expression.

Yet, a theme that the movie failed to fully capitalize on was the potential for abuse when a sole company has so much access to data and information on individuals. Facebook and Google, for example, have so much data collected on their users that they are baffled on how to utilize it. Facebook’s control of its content seems more like someone drinking water from a fire hose, as they have had constant hiccups with the proliferation of fake accounts, false content and cyberbullying.

Don’t get me wrong and think that I hate these companies and believe humankind should return to the twentieth century; I believe technology has great potential and I enjoy most, if not all, of the services offered by today’s social media companies. But just likes banks, mining firms and oil drillers, I believe these enterprises should be monitored and their use of user data should be fiercely regulated. Some laws do exist already, although Congress seems keen on repealing them.

Privacy is in fact a human right. The Constitution itself gives Americans the right of privacy in their own property and protects them from unreasonable searches and seizures. Internet privacy, of course, is a tricky beast to pin down, because the data you create is compiled by software created by these companies, and certainly they should have some authority to monitor their own systems. My problem isn’t that companies necessarily collect the data, but rather, who collects the data, regulates it and decides what to do with it.

When faced with this quandary, it is always important to err on the side of privacy. Much of the data collected on users is not for some sadistic purpose, but often to simply help advertisers target their outreach better. However, the capability is there and growing for companies or individuals to abuse this power. “The Circle” has opened a door for this conversation, and while the movie hasn’t rocked the cinemas, I hope it encourages people to think about boundaries when it comes to privacy and how far these companies should be allowed to go.

Timothy K. DesJarlais, University of Arizona

Political Science
Social Media

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