Why The Conversation Should Be Required Viewing at the NSA

Francis Ford Coppola's psychological thriller, which turns 40 today, may be the best exploration of the dangers of surveillance that pop culture has ever produced.


Technology—iPhones, Google Glass, tablets, and the like—makes our day-to-day lives easier to quantify than ever. That's a good thing, in many ways; more information about how people live can help, say, improve healthcare.

But fiction, from George Orwell’s 1984 to this weekend’s box-office hit Captain America: The Winter Soldier, has long warned us about the ways that data collection can also threaten privacy, freedom, and happiness. The most powerful cautionary tale for the Age of Big Data comes from an unlikely place: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, which turns 40 today.

The Conversation is a member of what you could call Big Brother Cinema, which spans the paranoia thrillers of the 1970s (The Parallax View, Blow Out, Three Days of the Condor) to modern action films (Sneakers, Enemy of the State, Mercury Rising, and Live Free or Die Hard). Most films of the genre preach to the converted, entertainingly boosting simplistic “surveillance = bad” rhetoric. The Conversation at first glance appears to do the same. But look closer and it’s more than that: a nuanced look at the unintended consequences of surveillance, the kind of movie that should be required viewing for every NSA and Google employee.

The plot revolves around surveillance specialist, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), hired to record a couple’s conversation. He faces a crisis of conscience when he suspects that the couple is having an affair and that handing his client (the woman’s jealous husband) the tape could lead to the two targets’ murders. As he starts to try and figure out how to save the couple, slowly the watcher becomes the watched as Caul suspects he too is in danger.

So in obvious ways, the film’s about the perils of surveillance. But more crucially, it’s about the perils of the mindset that enables surveillance. At the beginning of the movie, Caul sees people solely as sources of information. As he says in the opening sequence—while he’s spying on the couple—“I don’t care what they’re talking about. All I want is a nice, fat recording.” His professional philosophy is captured by lines like “I don’t know anything about human nature … That’s not part of what I do” and “What [the clients] do with the tapes is their own business.” Lives aren’t lives to him; they’re mere sound waves on tapes, to be packaged and passed off to someone else.

That changes when he fixes a distorted part of his recording, and hears the man saying to the woman, “He’ll kill us if he gets the chance.” Caul realizes the “he” is his client, and in that moment his earlier worldview inverts: Caul no longer cares about the big, fat recording, he cares about what the couple are talking about. With time, the words spooling away in his tape decks gain significance to him. He combs through the recorded conversation, attempting to understand the man’s and woman’s feelings and fears, to glean any insights that could help save them.

In this, Caul fails. It wasn’t the couple that was in danger, it turns out. It was his client. Caul’s lack of experience, intuition, and insights about “human nature” makes him misinterpret what he hears, a fact the movie highlights by using a different line reading of “He’d kill us if he got he chance” after he realizes the client has been killed. The emphasis shifts from “He’d kill us,” to “He’d kill us.” In that moment, as editor Walter Murch says in Gene D. Phillips’ Godfather: The Intimate Francis Ford Coppola, “Harry [Caul] hears the line in his mind as it must have been all along.” The truth was always there. Caul just couldn’t hear it, because understanding how voices have inflections, and how inflections convey emotion and truth, was never part of his job.

You can see the present-day lessons here pretty clearly. The hardest thing to believe about the National Security Agency’s invasion of millions of emails and phone calls wasn’t that the agents did what they did. Big Brother Cinema prepared us for that. It’s how thoughtlessly they did it, how little regard they showed for the human beings whose information they were taking. How could PRISM so matter-of-factly request all of Verizon Communications’ customers’ phone call information? Seize over half a million email address books in a single day? See one of its members draw a self-satisfied smiley face on a slide that illustrated how the NSA had circumvented Google’s encryptions? It all seems to stem from the very thing The Conversation warns us about: how easy it is to turn people into faceless ones and zeroes.

The NSA, of course, isn’t the only who has access to our data. As Steven Levy wrote in his Wired feature “How the NSA Almost Killed the Internet,” “The tech companies are more like the NSA than they would like to think. Both have seized on the progress in computing, communications, and storage to advance their respective missions … Both have sought to fulfill those missions by amassing huge troves of personal information.” It’s not difficult to imagine that the companies we give our information too—Facebook, Google, Apple, and more—could succumb to Harry Caul’s initial indifferent views of people. Maybe they already have.

The danger of that worldview—as The Conversation points out—lies not in the collection of data, nor in the underlying intentions, but rather in the risks of misinterpretation. Even when Caul decides to try and use his recordings to save lives, he makes a fatal error.  As the amount of info society generates increases, so too does the risk of misunderstanding what that info says about the people within that society. That could yield consequences on a small scale, like how Netflix’s recommendation algorithms fundamentally misjudge the complexity of your tastes. Or, it could yield consequences on a bigger scale. Statistically, with millions of emails at its disposal, some surveilling authority is bound to accuse an innocent person (like those would-be detectives on Reddit did when they culled available information to accuse the wrong people of the Boston bombing) or overlook a guilty one.

At one point in The Conversation, Caul attends a surveillance convention with hucksters hawking wares, boasting of their ability to more effectively invade people’s lives. The scene is a portent of how technology that renders human beings into information has only gotten more sophisticated since 40 years ago, and will just continue improving. Our existence can only be digitized further with the advent of wearable tech, more advanced clouds, etc. It may become too easy to say, as a woman whom Caul meets does, that “It’s only a job. You’re not supposed to feel anything … You’re just supposed to do it. That’s all.” The Conversation argues she is wrong, and we all would do well to take heed. What’s held on servers isn’t just data. It’s lives.