See This Film Before Clicking 'I Agree' Again

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect—as Edward Snowden remains trapped in a Russian airport terminal while talking heads debate whether his leaking information about the NSA’s secret surveillance program (PRISM) was heroic or criminal, the riveting documentary “Terms And Conditions May Apply” (TACMA) begins releasing to mainstream audiences, asking the question: Is privacy dead?

The film, written and directed by Cullen Hoback, takes viewers back to a pre-internet era and then moves us forward in time, telling a story of privacy policy evolution in such a way that makes clear we are like that infamous frog in the pot of water being brought to a boil so slowly it doesn’t realize it needs to jump out. The overall message is not doomsday, but instead focuses on informing, entertaining, and frightening just enough to motivate actionthere are steps we can take to regain control of our personal data.

Why should we care? The main concern conveyed is not that tech companies like Google and Facebook are sharing our data with third parties to enable targeted advertising, but that these companies are now legally required to provide data to the government whenever it’s requested, without notifying users. And we’ve unknowingly agreed to it all. Admit it: You don’t really read the endless terms and conditions connected to every website you visit, phone call you make or app you download. Research estimates that doing so would take approximately 180 hours, or a little over a month of our time, every year.

But the government is using this data to help identify potential terrorists and prevent future attacks, right? Yes, but assumptions are being made about who poses a threat based on keyword searches, status updates, and tweets that often lack necessary context. Humor consistently lifts the serious tone of TACMA by introducing characters like Leigh Bryan, a young Brit who was held by U.S. Customs for tweeting his plans to “destroy” (a.k.a. party/get completely wasted in) America. And Jerome Schwartz, whose flagged search terms revealed that he was not planning to kill his wife but instead was a writer for a crime show on TV called “Cold Case.” Another man was greeted by the NYPD shortly after having fun with a quote from the movie Fight Club for his status update on Facebook.

Here’s the rub: The First Amendment to the United States Constitution clearly states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The type of preventative actions being taken by our government is in violation of our rights. And for anyone who believes preventative action might be worth it to minimize terrorist attacks, watch thisI skew optimistic, but this film officially freaked me out.

When the credits rolled I turned to my friends and (half) jokingly said, “I’m just going to post a quick status update.” We laughed, but the deeper question is this: Will we change our technology usage as a result of having seen this film? Do the benefits of usage still outweigh the potential drawbacks?

In thinking about it the next day, I couldn’t help but wonder whether or not we’ve become a bit numb to the idea of surveillance, at least in part, because we’re engaging in a mild version of it ourselves every time we look at someone’s LinkedIn profile, Google search a name, follow feeds on Twitter, see people “check-in” via Foursquare, or learn intimate details about the lives of others through Facebook. Have we simply come to accept that this type of “research” also happening to us? And are we loosing sight of the differentiation between who’s watching, and what the potential repercussions might be?

“In this country, privacy exists based on what we’re willing to accept,” says Hoback. So my question to readers is: What needs to happen before you’re willing to take action, and reclaim your rights to the digital data you’re creating? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section, and I highly encourage you to see this film (watch trailer here). The footage of Hoback’s attempts to interview Mark Zuckerberg, and access to the instant messages Zuckerberg sent discussing Facebook users’ privacy are worth the price of admission.

via Alan Levine / Flickr

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