Privacy themes in Dark Knight and Dark Knight Rises

Given that the lack of privacy is a big concern for many people these days, it’s not surprising that surveillance and privacy themes pervade both The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. Director Christopher Nolan says that he builds current political issues into the films–The Dark Night focused on mass surveillance and terrorism, while The Dark Knight Rises invokes capitalism and the Occupy movement. Don’t worry: we’ll give you a spoiler alert before we talk about The Dark Knight Rises!

The Dark Knight: A Commentary on Surveillance Society

In The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) has arms inventor extraordinaire Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) build a mass surveillance system to spy on Gotham City’s citizens using video and mobile phone technology. Despite Fox threatening to quit over the system because it violated innocent citizens’ privacy, Wayne argued that it was necessary to catch Joker. In the end, Wayne destroyed the system. 

Bruce Wayne's mass surveillance system in The Dark Knight.

The argument that widespread surveillance–and thus infringing on people’s civil liberties–is necessary to stop terrorism is very common. That argument is the basis for the more than 1.3 million law enforcement requests each year for US residents’ cell phone records. It’s why private companies like Verizon, AT&T, and Google have to turn over your personal information when law enforcement asks for it. It’s why the National Security Agency (NSA) is currently building a $2 billion surveillance center to intercept the communications of every American.

In The Dark Knight, Batman realized that it wasn’t worth violating an entire city’s privacy to catch one lunatic. Likewise, many prominent legal thinkers have argued that there doesn’t have to be a zero-sum tradeoff between privacy and security: there are ways of protecting the people without destroying their rights in the process.

*SPOILER ALERT*

We’re moving on to The Dark Knight Rises. Don’t read on if you haven’t seen it (and you should; it was awesome).

The Dark Knight Rises: The Value of a “Delete” Button

Gotham’s premiere cat burglar Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) risks her life–and decimates Wayne’s fortune–in exchange for a rumored “clean slate” software program. Catwoman has a serious track record and the hefty case file to prove it. The most valuable possession to her can’t be stolen out of a safe: it’s a clean identity, a fresh start.

Both Batman and Catwoman note that the amount of damning data on Catwoman is massive and closing in on her, from criminal records to her date of birth, and that sooner or later she won’t be able to outrun the pace of public information.

Catwoman sells Wayne’s fingerprints to Daggett, a corrupt member of the Wayne Enterprises board, only to find out that the clean slate he offered her doesn’t exist (at least as far as he knows). Batman later shows her that it does. The film’s final scene in which Wayne and Kyle are eating lunch at a cafe suggests that the two used the clean slate tool to start a new life together.

Catwoman’s desire to delete everything about her past isn’t something only supervillains want: plenty of regular people do, too. In fact, 92% of Americans believe that websites and advertising companies should be required to delete all information stored about an individual if requested to do so. Under current laws and Terms of Use, almost everything you voluntarily post online is there to stay. Contrast this with the EU, which allows its citizens a “right to be forgotten.”

Delete buttonOne of the most common requests that we get about our DeleteMe service is to remove everything about a person online, from embarrassing photos to old forum posts to out-of-date newspaper articles that paint them in a negative light. A wholesale deletion isn’t possible (we aren’t Batman). However, we can remove your personal info–like your address, email, phone, and family members’ names–from data broker websites that publicly display and sell it. DeleteMe wouldn’t have wiped Catwoman’s criminal record, but it would have made it harder for Batman to find out where she lived.

It’s also interesting that clearing one’s slate requires the help of the well-connected and wealthy, both in the Dark Knight Rises universe and in ours. With her humble upbringing and survival instinct, Catwoman represents the people–the 99%–yet she depends on Daggett and Wayne to give her the clean slate she wants so badly. In our world, getting a defamatory blog post taken off the web usually requires costly legal help to get a court order and expensive reputation management services to bury search results, neither of which most people can afford. I’ve written previously about how it’s expensive, difficult, and time-consuming for the average person to remove negative content, and I posted a DIY guide to deleting yourself without bankrupting yourself.

Anne Hathaway Catwoman


The Dark Knight trilogy’s social commentary is a major reason for its acclaim. It raises critical questions about privacy, surveillance, and identity: the roles they play in our lives, how important they are to us, and what we’re willing to give up to preserve them.

If you had a delete button for your life, would you use it? What types of things would you erase?




4 comments shared on this article:

  • Lisa Ostella says:

    >>>However, we can remove your personal info–like your address, email, phone, and family members’ names–from data broker websites that publicly display and sell it.

    Curious as to why Accurint isn’t included in Abine’s data broker list since they are the ones that provide 80% to 90% of the search result data to the data brokers that are listed with Abine?

    thanks.

  • God says:

    There already is a identiy sweeper out there. The government owns it but won’t release it. They use is for CIA.

  • Pundit Fight says:

    Nice to see such a comprehensive rundown on this. Now that its in the public consciousness with Snowden and the NSA, people can revisit this if they weren’t paying attention the first time.

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