Consider two American films, twenty-four years apart, both starring Gene Hackman as a reclusive surveillance expert. The difference between the work done by Harry Caul, the naive, emotionally stunted private investigator played by Hackman in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film The Conversation, and the work done by Edward Lyle, the disaffected, cynical former spy Hackman portrays in the 1998 Tony Scott film Enemy of the State, is more than a matter of the tools they use.1
Caul uses audio and video surveillance to investigate private citizens, while Lyle deftly deploys the digital tools and techniques that have come to characterize our era of total surveillance. We learn that before choosing to go “off the grid,” Lyle did high-level work for either a government organization like the National Security Agency or a private contractor working for the NSA. (The exact truth is never fully revealed.) Lyle seems to be Caul a quarter century later, with a new name, a deeper sense of nihilism, but the same aversion to sharing information with others.
Caul’s tools, analog and cumbersome, are remarkably effective at capturing the conversations and images of his targets. He snoops on specific human subjects and works for private firms and individuals alike. He focuses on personal matters, not criminal or national security ones.
Lyle, by contrast, introduces both Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith) and filmgoers of the late 1990s to an invisible web sustained by the continuous mining and tracking of digital data. The team of geeky spies assigned to track Dean as he rushes through Washington has at its disposal credit records, mobile phone signals, and hundreds of surveillance cameras positioned throughout the city.
Caul lives in a completely different information ecosystem from the one inhabited by Lyle. It’s not that the government was more benign or restrained during the Nixon years—we need only think of Watergate—or that private firms had nobler motivations. And Caul certainly has the skill and equipment to track individuals and record their words and movements in intimate detail. Like Lyle, he has the power to ruin lives through surveillance and revelation. But Caul cannot imagine anything beyond the precisely targeted surveillance of specific individuals.
Lyle, however, lives at the dawn of the Big Data era. In Lyle’s information ecosystem, firms and states maintain massive databases that contain records not only of commercial transactions, but of people’s movements and even their characteristic facial expressions. There is a permeable membrane between data collected by private firms and data used by state security forces. And our electronic devices, as Dean learns the hard way, support this environment of continuous, near-total surveillance. Data collection is so cheap and easy that it’s unnecessary to make a priori judgments about which of its findings might be important. Firms and states collect first and ask questions later.
Caul’s downfall in The Conversation results from a moment of weakness. He reveals the wrong details to the wrong person at the wrong time. His own vulnerability awakens his moral sense. Concerned not just for his own privacy, he now feels culpable for the damage he has done to others by invading theirs.