Docutopia #55: Don’t Track Me

Cullen Hoback’s Terms and Conditions May Apply, which opens in New York on Friday, may not be “one of the best docs of the year,” as Twitch’s Ben Umstead proclaimed after its Slamdance 2013 premiere, but it might be the most likely to incite widespread change. Inciting not in familiarly activist areas, such as pushing for electric car usage or encouraging vegan eating, but in the ways we manage our privacy on the Internet, and with social media and other digital communications. After all, it’s far easier to make a few adjustments on your web browser or download a few apps than to give up hot dogs.

In an age of ubiquitous government and corporate surveillance, Terms and Conditions May Apply argues that privacy is dead. But rather than simply accepting this sad fact we might want to do something about it. For example, here’s two quick things that Terms‘ website recommends: 1) Recheck your privacy settings on Facebook (they may have changed unbeknownst to you) and 2) Sign up for Do Not Track and/or use web browsers such as DuckDuckGo that don’t track your searches.

The problem of privacy—or lack thereof—has become a hot topic these days, of course, with the recent bombshell news about the N.S.A.’s PRISM program and the way Internet and phone companies have worked with the intelligence agency to spy on American citizens. Despite the lighthearted tone of Terms and Conditions May Apply, which begins with an animated credit sequence that lifts footage from South Park, and excerpts a fake-news clip from the Onion News Network (Facebook “is truly a dream come true for the C.I.A.,” says a man posing as a C.I.A. Deputy Director), it raises many of the same hair-raising truths about the collusion between government and telecommunication/media companies geared toward tracking, collecting and storing data on everyone under the sun.

While such assertions may be familiar to students of public policy and Constitutional law, they could prove revelatory for the rest of us. For instance, the film introduces highly disconcerting concepts such as the “Third Party Doctrine,” which allows the government to bypass the 4th Amendment by collecting personal info from companies like Google and Facebook, and “Total Information Awareness,” a broad-ranging U.S. surveillance program that was killed in 2003 but whose mission lives on.

Hoback sometimes goes off track, such as with a Michael Moore-style ambush of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg that comes off as a bit crass. But when the doc offers up a litany of private individuals who have been harassed and persecuted by the government for Twitter and Facebook posts deemed potentially threatening, it raises serious questions about the perilous state of personal freedom in the Internet age. As singer Moby, one of the film’s interviewees concedes, “Anything that’s digitized is not private.”

As evidenced by the number of docs on similar issues that premiered at Park City this year, privacy erosion is becoming one of the most important civil liberties issues of our digital age.

Ben Lewis’ Google and the World Brain looked specifically at Google’s quest to create a massive digital library. Attempts to improve Search algorithms and increase ways to monetize the search engine giant’s enormous stores of information resulted in violations of copyright laws and content creators’ rights. The company comes across as just a hair’s breadth away from a menacing Big Brother figure right out of dystopian sci-fi.

Another doc about the value of information in the digital age, Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks examines Julian Assange’s infamous website, but also, just as importantly, the way that the government has aggressively sought to protect its own data and persecute those who leak it. The film’s controversial take on Assange, who comes across as paranoid and egomaniacal, has unfortunately tainted the perception of the overall film, which has as much to say about Assange as about the nature of transparency and who controls information in our society. (Needless to say, the Obama Presidency comes off as significantly wicked in both Terms and Conditions and We Steal Secrets, with both movies suggesting that the current Administration has done more to conceal State secrets than any other President before him.)

But perhaps the most important documentary on the subject has yet to come.

It was Laura Poitras, director of such acclaimed docs as My Country, My Country and The Oath, who co-authored the news stories about PRISM and was first contacted by now notorious whistleblower Edward Snowden, all as part of research on a third as-yet-untitled film about the ramifications of the war on terror.

While still under wraps, the tenor of Poitras’s new project might be discernible in a couple of nonfiction shorts that have appeared online within the last year: The Program, a New York Times Op-Doc from August of last year in which Poitras profiles William Binney, a 32-year veteran of the National Security Agency, who backs up Snowden’s claims about the government’s collection of massive amounts of Americans’ personal data; and Providence, made for the Freedom of the Press Foundation and released this March, which overlays leaked audio recordings of Bradley Manning’s court testimony with the shocking Apache air-strike “Collateral Murder” video that he offered up to Wikileaks in 2010.

Along with the aforementioned feature docs, the Poitras shorts assert an ominous unease about surveillance and information collection in the post-9/11 world. And if it doesn’t bother you that your Google Searches and cell-phone records are readily available to law enforcement without a subpoena, William Binney has a warning for you. “The dangers here are we fall into a totalitarian state like East Germany,” he says in The Program. “Just because we call ourselves a democracy doesn’t mean we’ll stay that way.”

Anthony Kaufman has written about films and the film industry for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Village Voice, and Slate. He is currently a regular contributor to Variety, The Wall Street Journal Online, Filmmaker Magazine, The Utne Reader, and writes the ReelPolitik blog for Indiewire.com.

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