As the director of Terms and Conditions May Apply, a recently released documentary about privacy and the data trail we leave online, Cullen Hoback was understandably pleased with the timing of the revelations of NSA surveillance that Edward Snowden brought to light. “I woke up one day and suddenly the world was paying much more attention to these issues than ever before,” says Hoback. But pleased isn’t the word he would use to describe his feelings about the U.S. government–and even advertisers–mining our data in the ways that they do. With one click of a virtual box (“Yes, I agree to these terms and conditions”), we willingly, blindly, and wholly hand over our personal information in order to gain access to some convenient social, shopping, and entertainment experiences.
In the documentary, which is airing tonight on the new Pivot channel as well as playing now in Toronto and San Jose, California, theaters, Hoback lays out the ways in which Google, Facebook, iTunes, and all of their Silicon Valley brethren have been mining our every move to amass vast databases that can be–and are–sold for profit.
Did we know all this? In theory, yes. But we didn’t know the extent or all the ways that info is being used today. Which is why Hoback was pleased by Snowden’s leaks. “For the first time, people said, ‘Oh, my god, I’m on a list. Those are my phone calls,’ ” he says. “It was specific. This was something that my mom could understand.”
But it’s a long way from understanding to doing something about it. Here, Hoback–who believes that just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s a good thing–lays out what’s really going on and some steps that we can take to stop it.
But I have nothing to hide, you might well be saying now. And that might be true. But the government doesn’t know that, and they can interpret your words and actions any way they like. Take Leigh Van Bryan, an Irish national interviewed in the film who, prior to his vacation in the States, tweeted to a friend that he was off to “destroy America.” The tweet ended with an innocent “xo.” When Van Bryan and his girlfriend landed in the states for their American holiday, they were detained overnight at LAX and then sent back to Europe. For a casual tweet.
“It’s the context,” says Hoback. “The systems aren’t good at context, and that’s what risky about trying to prevent something from happening. Context aside, you don’t know if the person is going to actually do what they said; you don’t know if it’s a joke. It’s a dicey kind of Pandora’s box you’re playing with.” Indeed, anyone who’s sent a joke via email that has been misconstrued by the recipient knows what Hoback’s talking about. To expect the government to interpret tone properly, when we’re not even sure our friends understand our tone all the time seems, well. . . .”How is the government supposed to interpret that ‘xo’? And now that guy can never go into an airport ever again without being harassed.”
Hoback goes on to wonder whether an actual terrorist would really tweet that he’s going to “destroy America.” “That’s going to be their strategy? That’s not how this stuff works. The people who are getting fucked by these systems are not the people that they’re intended to fuck.”
Then Hoback raises a new concern: our phone interview. “I mean, I get worried, right? Because I know they’re listening to my calls. They’re probably listening to yours. You’re a journalist.” When I explain that I mostly write about movies and people in Hollywood, Hoback says: “You should have never called me today.”
“It’s not like I’m sitting here saying, get off Twitter, Get off Google, get off [all these] services,” says Hoback. “I’m saying, You need to fundamentally alter the mentality behind these services and retool and rethink the idea of data being a right. We should own our data. A company shouldn’t own our data. If you can do that, you can delete the data, you can control it, and the government also shouldn’t have unadulterated access to it.” And how is that possibly supposed to happen? “Well, I think it’s a multipronged approach. The first step is awareness, understanding what the cost is. And then there’s the intermediate stuff where you can get privacy tools and some things to protect you, but in the long run, it’s going to require having access to our information and putting pressure on these corporations to at least show us that they have honor. It’s crazy that that’s not even a right, that we can’t even say, Hey, Google, Facebook, I want to know the entire data spec that you have collected on me. It’s really daunting, I mean, it’s wildly personal. Their objective is to basically map your personality, right? I mean, that is essentially you, within this digital form. It’s crazy.”
“If we gave up freedom of speech, and we could make a trillion dollars off of it, should we do that? That’s the question,” he says. “It doesn’t matter that there’s a massive economy surrounding this stuff. Innovation will follow suit. If it doesn’t go this way, it will come up with a new strategy.”
When there’s a lot of money at stake, people undermine their own interests rapidly, Hoback notes. But there are other strategies for asserting more control over our data. “There are ways of encrypting data so that even a company can’t look at it. Some people would provide information to certain organizations if they wanted their advertising, or wanted to do so. Right now, the choice is in the hands of a computer. That’s why I go back to this idea of data control, and perhaps even data mobility, the idea that your data is yours, you share your data if you want, but you can also take that information back. It would require some restructuring of the systems at play here, but that would still enable an advertising model that works around this. It empowers the individual and it allows them to decide what is done with their information.”
Every socially conscious documentary has to provide some tools so that we can do some good, right In this case, it’s TrackOff. “We developed this social action hub with the Ford Foundation to demand progress. We’re starting out by just getting people to demand that their congressmen see the movie, because I don’t even think the people on Capitol Hill understand what’s going on here. That’s the first step, because this idea of demanding access and control of our information is going to be a rallying point. I don’t believe that it’s hopeless.
“Obviously, we can’t change the past, but we can redirect the future, and if you look at where our technology is moving, it’s moving closer and closer to our body, even. Things like Google Glass are only going to make the potential for having privacy in a digital society less [likely]. So, unless these systems are redesigned and we act fairly quickly, it could be very, very, very hard to pull out.”