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Seth Engel Headshot

How Tom Cruise Is Stealing Your Liberty

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In Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, a 50-year-old Tom Cruise climbs the world's tallest building with one hand. He thwarts the doomsday plot of a less-developed version of Professor Moriarty while simultaneously proving that his split with Katie Holmes was actually a gallant attempt to protect her from the dangerous media spotlight.

But none of it would have been possible without Apple

I unintentionally counted at least six scenes where iPhones were prominently displayed in Mission Impossible, including the last scene where Tom conspicuously arrays three of them in a row on a the table in front of him. His token British friend hacks everything on a set of black and white MacBook Pros, from Dubai's security network to satellite frequencies.

In perhaps the most ridiculous scene of all, Tom and co. use an iPad-generated refraction screen of some sort to trick the guard at the Kremlin archives that there is no Mission Impossible-style tomfoolery afoot. As a friend of mine quipped, Tom may as well have plopped the iPad 2 by itself in the hallway, distracting the Russian guard with its sparkling California promise alone. In a Hollywood where movies and advertisements are inching towards each other, Mission Impossible takes a humongous leap.

Who cares?

Like most 15-30-year-olds in the developed world (and now some of the developing world), I use Apple products on a daily basis. I know that Genius collects my music data on iTunes and that my iPhone always knows exactly where I am. I know that Cloud allows you to trust your precious data to the Apple gods in the nether, and that iPhoto picks up the location, time and date of every photo you possess. Despite this, I still use and love my Apple products, and I still click "Agree" to the 40-page iTunes adhesion contract that I never read.

In my opinion, it was not since the age of Rockefeller and Carnegie that two companies such as Apple and Google so dominated public life. Add Microsoft's steel grip on Windows and Word into the mix and the vast technological power of global information is frighteningly concentrated in the hands of very few.

Government, rights, and liberty

Mission Impossible involves government agents wreaking havoc after their own government turns their back on them. Yet they still manage to tap into the tech and informational power of the U.S. government on several occasions, clearly with the help of their Apple friends. Until Apple and the U.S. government eventually merge, though, no government can actually have the power that Apple does -- or does it?

Both governments and private citizens use technology to shut you off from certain websites or services. Your employer can cut off Facebook access in the office and the French government can require your internet provider to cut you off if you download illegally. China has been blocking Facebook for years. But when discussing China, of course, it's called "censorship."

What rights do you have in the workplace, and what redress can you take against the employer? This is a bit of a hazy gray area, previously discussed in gender discrimination and hostile workplace claims. But isn't the government supposed to be the issuer and protector of rights?

It's no surprise that different rights come into tension with each other. My right to physical security conflicts with your right to the freedom of speech to scream "FIRE!" in a crowded movie theater. Microsoft's right to protect its private property interferes with a hacker's right to free speech, i.e. to dissimilate pirated copies of Windows 7. These are extreme examples viewed by US courts as placing legitimate limits on rights. But how far can these limits go? And who can limit them?

Is Apple a private or public actor?

Apple and Google are clearly private actors, but they engage in interstate commerce and are therefore regulated by the federal government. They are also subject to Department of Justice subpoenas, which could require them to turn over your Cloud, Genius, and search history information, theoretically turning these companies into a more powerful quasi-organ of the government than the FBI or CIA could ever be.

On the flip side, intellectual property protects Apple, Google and Microsoft's rights to private property. This is a situation where a government will prosecute you if you breach the copyright owner's property right, trumping your right to free speech. That's the route that the French, Chinese, and U.S. governments have chosen to take. Your right to privacy, protected in the U.S. by Roe v. Wade among other Supreme Court decisions, might be a thing of the past, as well as the legal distinction between private and public actors.

Oh, Tom...

Without any probe into the interplay between intellectual property and free speech and privacy rights, you may want to rethink your use of the Internet. But then again, how can you express yourself without it?

This tangled web of economic, security, and rights-based interests leaves us in the dark about what intel Tom and his spy friends can get off our iPhones, though he clearly wants us to keep using them. This is all strangely reminiscent of another Cruise movie, Minority Report, where the government arrested you before you could even commit a crime. I think there's an app for that.

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