The 007 franchise has traditionally been among Hollywood’s most gadget-happy and fetishistic series when it comes to technology. The estimable Mr. Bond is forever dispatching bad guys with high-tech goodies from his mad-scientist quartermaster Q: Laser-beam watches, amphibious cars, the occasional jet pack.
So it’s fascinating to see how the series’ latest installment Spectre, opening Friday, goes another way entirely. This is a movie that’s afraid of technology – very afraid – and with good reason.
The gist (minor spoilers ahead): In Spectre, James Bond (Daniel Craig) finds himself fighting enemies both at home and abroad. Chrisoph Waltz plays the main villain and exterior threat, and as usual he’s creepy on some kind of ambient cellular level. But back home, Bond has another problem. The incoming intelligence chief, code named C, wants to kill off the old-school 007 program and establish a new security strategy based on weaponized drones, armchair espionage and ubiquitous 24-7 surveillance.
In fact, if you tune into the film’s thematic sideband frequencies, Spectre is essentially a 148-minute cautionary tale about Britain’s metastatizing surveillance society.
This is a big issue across the pond. A recent study estimated that there are around six million closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras in the U.K. That works out to be about one camera for every 11 people in Her Majesty’s realm, depending on how you crunch the numbers. The situation is probably a lot worse, actually. That survey is a couple of years old, and with many CCTV systems now connected by vulnerable wireless networks, those “closed” circuits aren’t really closed at all.
Many Britons are understandably freaked out about this. What’s more, Britain’s intelligence agencies enjoy some rather frightening privileges under the law when it comes to collecting information on its own citizens. The United Nations’ recently appointed privacy chief has called the situation in Britain worse than anything George Orwell could have imagined. As you may be aware, things aren’t much better in the U.S.
Back to the movie, and stop reading now if you want to avoid spoilers. The Big Threat in Spectre – the catastrophe our heroic spies are scrambling to prevent – isn’t a nuclear bomb or lunar death ray or weather-control machine. It’s a new all-powerful global surveillance system, poised to go online, complete with the requisite Red Digital Readout.
As it happens, Spectre is being released the same week that UK lawmakers proposed another alarming new policy. If the plan goes through, Britain’s communication service providers (CSPs) would be required to track and hold customers’ web browsing data for a year, and make it available to government officials. It would read like an itemized phone bill, officials say, with every web site you visited. Zoinks.
(And if you think that can’t happen here, think again. For the better part of the last decade, the FBI and other three-letter agencies have been trying to push ISPs to store all their subscriber data for at least one year and make it available to the Feds upon request.)
Of course, Spectre isn’t the first movie to address contemporary surveillance state concerns. It’s a genre onto itself, really. But the film elevates the issue into some new atmospheric stratum of pop culture concern. When a surveillance system is elevated to the level of doomsday device in a 007 movie, we should probably pay attention. We’re telling ourselves something.
And at any rate, I think we can all agree that we don’t want Christoph Waltz getting hold of our browser history.