Thursday, July 11, 2013


Talk about good timing. In a summer during which the news has been filled with stories of the NSA’s capabilities to spy on Americans and the man who leaked the information is forced to flee the country for doing so, the exact nature of who can know what about us is fresh in the public consciousness. Fortuitously, here's a new documentary about who can access digital information called Terms and Conditions May Apply. Director Cullen Hoback, whose last doc looked at live-action role players, has pulled together a clear-eyed primer on what information companies allow themselves to collect and store indefinitely, an ability we grant each and every time we click "Agree" to use an app or even simply hit return in a search bar. I'd say this brisk, informative documentary is not for paranoid people. But after watching it, they wouldn't be paranoid any more. They'd know they're onto something.

It's a documentary that features not one new or startling fact. Rather, it gets its ability to startle out of a collection of bits and pieces of news and information that have dribbled out over the past dozen years or so that take on sharper meaning when viewed in totality. Run back to back, it's easy to be freshly troubled by how little "Privacy Policies" protect users, and how much those tiny-print documents with the check box at the bottom are used to grant companies enormous leeway in using data collected in the course of browsing, uploading, chatting, emailing, and tweeting. The film finds personal anecdotes about people with innocuous digital moments twisted: a writer for the murder-solving procedural Cold Case whose job-related search terms sure look suspicious, a seventh grader’s Facebook message of concern for the president that was misread by the Secret Service, and a tourist whose tweet using the word "destroy" in the party sense finds him in trouble with immigration.

Human interest stories aside, the strength of the film sits squarely in the accumulation of cold hard facts. Interviews with journalists, lawyers, tech writers, analysts, and experts of one kind or another, as well as news footage and the requisite cheeky appropriations of movie and TV clips, outline the insidious creep of surveillance in modern society. The more technology evolves to connect, collaborate, and communicate with speeds ever faster and devices ever smaller, the more the potential for uses and abuses. The argument is tracked back politically and economically to the Patriot Act. We’re shown footage of George W. Bush proudly announcing new laws to allow law enforcement easy and total access to any kind of communications "used by terrorists." Unspoken in his statement is the not-insignificant fact that people who aren't terrorists tend to use email and cell phones too. The film goes on to chart the continued refinement of these practices which most certainly did not end when the public discovered them or when the presidential administrations changed.

Hoback, in a trim 79-minute runtime, isn't content to lay the blame entirely on the Patriot Act, looking at the surveillance industry and societal shifts as well as base political motives. The film is no screed - it pulls footage from both Fox News and MSNBC - in the way the evidence is displayed. It merely collects information and sorts through what it finds pertinent, drawing a path from the dawn of the Internet until now that seems to be heading in a quietly ominous direction for personal privacy. Rather than a heated argument, the damning evidence against governmental and corporate espionage, spying all Internet users are to some extent complicit in on some level, adds up only to a simple request to those institutions that track our every digital move: Can you please stop?

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