Billy Bob Thornton (left) stars as Agent Morgan and Ethan Embry (standing to his right) is Agent Toby Grant in the thriller “Eagle Eye.” Photo Credit: Ralph Nelson. Copyright © 2008 by DREAMWORKS LLC.
“I would compare the construction of surveillance networks to the creation of Frankenstein’s monster.”
– Marc Rotenberg
By John Scott Lewinski
While the paranoia-driven thrills in Eagle Eye were exaggerated for the benefit of popcorn-selling fiction, the adviser brought on to comment on the movie’s use of surveillance technology warns the world that the premise is hardly far-fetched.
Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, appears prominently in the featurettes packaged onto the Eagle Eye special edition DVD, which was released last month. A professor of privacy law at Georgetown University, Rotenberg insists that efforts by any government to consolidate surveillance also consolidate power.
“Camera networks are growing in most major cities,” said Rotenberg, a graduate of Harvard and Stanford Law School. “Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. While those networks are supposedly built to provide security, most of what the cameras see are people living, working, visiting. Those people aren’t criminals or terrorists.”
Eagle Eye examines the “what ifs” of such surveillance networks run amok as a mysterious villain omnisciently pushes Shia LaBeouf into criminal acts in and around our nation’s capital. The DVD’s producers invited Rotenberg to speak on the real world’s ability to monitor you via cameras, cellphone monitoring and internet taps.
“In Washington, one camera operator can have access to 5,000 cameras at any given time,” Rotenberg said. “That approaches omniscience. We need to ask, ‘Should those cameras be used? Should they be put in residential neighborhoods?’ It’s not too difficult to peer into someone’s private home in that case.”
While such antiterrorism tactics became a hot political issue in the post 9/11 era, Rotenberg made it clear that surveillance issues go beyond how you might feel about Vice President Dick Cheney. The cameras are tools, and how they’re used is key.
For example, Rotenberg explained that law enforcement agencies could well have the public’s best interest at heart when installing such cameras, but “many of the networks can be accessed in different ways. So, are they really secure? Someone inside the agency or inside the company providing the cameras might not be so ethical.”
Eagle Eye’s shadow baddie is a hell’s toss from ethical, and Rotenberg applauded the writers and filmmakers’ efforts to consider just how far the proliferation of surveillance could go.
Monitoring and debating the ethics of the growing surveillance world is the primary motivation of Rotenberg and the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
“We’re probably the leading privacy organization in the country right now,” he said. “We testified before the 9/11 Commission — the relationship between privacy and security. While defending against terrorism, surveillance could be used to limit freedom.”
To document the growing surveillance web around D.C., EPIC started Observing Surveillance, a collection of photos and other resources.
“I don’t think the public is as aware as it should be or needs to be,” Rotenberg said. “I’m afraid people think all of this is going to happen no matter what.
“I would compare the construction of surveillance networks to the creation of Frankenstein’s monster. While the original technological quest seemed justified in the beginning, the 21st century may have created our biggest threat to privacy.”