Transparency and the Expectation of Privacy: A Commentary on 'The Circle'

Transparency and the Expectation of Privacy: A Commentary on 'The Circle'

What does 'privacy' entail? How is it a right? What is a right?

Lauren D. Mazur

Written and directed by James Ponsoldt, ‘The Circle’ is a dystopian film that attempts to address a concerning dialogue between preserving certain liberties and embracing a new found love—or obsession—with transparency. Within the film, Tom Hanks’ character promotes a specific mindset (one that has grown a following in recent years) in which “knowing is good. Knowing everything is better."

He proposes a new world in which all are constantly watched through mini-circular cameras—all of which are directly connected to the social media chain The Circle. This is supported further with a politician declaring “I’m going transparent”—meaning all her emails, phone calls, texts etc. can be monitored by the public. Please, stop and think for a moment. Here, in this chaotic narrative, the word ‘privacy’ is no longer deemed necessary in our vocabulary. No; instead privacy is deemed as unnecessary and more representative of the unfavorable, withdrawn populace. Or, even more concerning, a criminal populace. Note, I will return to this issue later in my proposal.

This theme continues as the main character, played by Emma Watson, also goes transparent herself. She attaches a personal camera that is on all the time, open for all the internet to see. Of course, she has three private minutes to use the bathroom. Watson, or Mae Holland, claims to understand the necessity of The Circle’s goals and beliefs. People are their best selves when being watched; therefore, we must be watched constantly. ‘The Circle’ addresses an issue of one’s right to privacy with a question of “total transparency”—bringing up a long time debate with instigating the fourth amendment. With this in mind though, the film ultimately fails in the execution of said dialogue—only bringing up the bare minimum in regards to public concern and outlook.

As I previously mentioned, privacy is denigrated to a point of comical consequence; 'The Circle' rejects any degree of reality, specifically in terms of defining the rights we are granted through citizenship. In regards to privacy, it is the fourth amendment that 'The Circle' attempts to debate. The amendment reads: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

I bring up this specific issue not to critique 'The Circle,' but to instead discuss the ethical and statutory implications behind the fourth amendment. First, I draw your attention to the words "right" and "unreasonable searches and seizures."

Having a recent debate with my father about the innate definition of "right," I realize now that it is a far more complex word than when first interpreted. It is defined as "that which is due to anyone by just claim, legal guarantees, moral principles, etc." With this definition in mind, I had ideally thought a right to be identical to the word privilege. It is a privilege to be able to vote for our leaders in government. It is a privilege to be able to speak out against those very leaders. It is a privilege to have privacy in our homes and our lawfully bought property. As some of you have probably guessed, there is a problem with this narrative of thinking. In many ways 'The Circle' argues a similar narrative. Privilege is defined as a "special right" granted to certain citizens due to birth and/or specific tasks they accomplished.

A privilege is granted and earned while a right is endowed and in turn inalienable; a right cannot be simply taken away, but a privilege can. This is the ultimate difference between a privilege and a right--and it must be remembered. It is a privilege to be an American citizen; it is a right to vote for future government leaders. It is a privilege to be able to afford college; it is a right to be able to speak out for your beliefs. It is a privilege to be born white; it is a right to protest government action and ruling. A right can only be taken through the process of conviction.

With this in mind, the Fourth Amendment holds specific language involving your right to privacy, and where the line "unreasonable" is drawn. Under the Bill of Rights, the police cannot search your house or your persons without due cause--more specifically a warrant. Here is where the line gets blurry between 'due cause' and 'unreasonable.' A police officer can search your private property only with a warrant--and a warrant can only be granted by a Judge in which the police officer must show probable cause to do so. This is no different than when a police officer pulls you over while driving. Just as when requesting to search your house, a cop must demonstrate probable cause to search your vehicle.

I bring up these specifics because this is how many trials are decided in regards to incriminating evidence. Evidence that is found by the police, in violation of your rights, cannot and should not be used in your trial. Here are some cases of note that I invite you to look up and research further: Vernonia School District v. Acton and New Jersey v. T. L. O. Both decisions involve students reporting they had their Fourth Amendment rights violated. To sum up the two:

Vernonia School District v. Acton: Vernonia School District authorizes a policy in which faculty can require random drug testing of student athletes. Student James Acton refused, his parents refused, and he was in turn removed from football. He claimed his rights to be violated. The Supreme Court ruled otherwise saying: "Students do have rights at school, but those rights must be balanced with the school’s responsibility to provide a safe environment."

New Jersey v. T. L. O.: A student was caught smoking in the bathroom (under 18). She denied smoking to the assistant vice-principle who then demanded her purse. He searched it, finding "a pack of cigarettes, rolling papers, marijuana, a pipe, plastic bags, a large amount of money, and a list of students who owed her money."

She was tried with this evidence and found guilty for delinquency. T. L. O. reported this as a violation of her rights--bringing it to the U.S. Supreme Court. They, as you probably guessed, reversed the New Jersey Supreme Court's decision. However, they further defined their ruling:

"School officials can search a student if they have reasonable suspicion. School officials do not need to have probable cause or obtain a search warrant. Reasonable suspicion is a lower standard than the probable cause required for police searches of the public at large."

What do you think of these Supreme Court Decisions? My goal for this article is to promote conversation and debate. Simply put, the Fourth Amendment is too large for one opinion alone. It is too large for 'The Circle' and too large for me. So I invite you to continue the discussion and intrigue--know your rights, understand your government institutions, and enact upon them. Please comment; it is your right to do so.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.

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