How much does the Internet know about you? From your tastes and preferences, to your politics, consumer habits and media consumption, data aggregation companies are constantly tracking you online. Even when you visit a non-shopping site like the New York Times, third parties can follow your search patterns, hoping to manipulate or influence you with advertising. This shady corporate sleuthing is the subject of a new seven-part interactive docu-series, Do Not Track, by director Brett Gaylor and the National Film Board of Canada. It’s meant to be a wake up call for anyone who believes that online privacy isn’t terribly important or who thinks they’re inherently protected by the overwhelming amount of data that trackers gather daily.
“We have assumptions that our data footprint is banal, but companies use correlations [in our search patterns] to sell us things or make predictions about us,” says Gaylor. This could be anything from whether we’re a risk for insurance companies to how intelligent we are. Take Facebook, the subject of Do Not Track, episode three. “If I let my friends know that I like Game of Thrones and Star Wars and that I’m left leaning politically, we might assume that’s all people might know,” Gaylor says. “In fact, much more can be learned about who you are by correlating that information with other people like you.” Researchers who study how data collectors mine our social media accounts have found the unlikely (and bizarre) correlation between people who like curly fries and intelligence. Gaylor admits there’s no way to know exactly how a company might use such a random correlation, though conceivably determining what kind of intelligence curly fry lovers have could help agencies design more targeted ads. “What’s absolutely true,” he says, “is that in the venture capital confused economy of the web, companies are rewarded for collecting as much information about us as they can.”
The vast freedom that companies have to track us might surprise some viewers. When we visit a site like the Times, two types of cookies are dropped. One is by the publication itself so that the site can remember what pages you’ve visited. But other cookies are dropped by ad networks without the Times’ permission. “If you visit another site on same ad network—the Times and then Fast Company, that cookie will know it. So when you come back to the Times, it’ll offer you ads,” Gaylor says. And since publishers are beholden to an advertising revenue model, they can’t really complain about this incursion into their readers’ privacy.
Do Not Track demonstrates this meddling in real time by showing viewers exactly how their personal data can be manipulated. Each episode of the series asks you to input some information about yourself, like the news sites you visit and where you go for online entertainment. Meanwhile, by logging into the video (as you would an app), the system automatically knows where you’re located. And this physical location will influence the narrative you’re watching. “The data that we discuss is your data,” says Gaylor. “We can ask the audience their opinions and behaviors as they’re using the web.” If you’re watching an episode from New York, you might see NYC-based imagery or be asked whether you prefer the Yankees or the Mets. You might then be asked about your favorite foods. The documentary will then make correlations from this data to figure out which interviews you might like to see. “The audience is editing the doc by making choices based on who they are,” Gaylor explains. He says that to see a different version of the documentary, you’d literally have to be a different person.
For Gaylor, our complacency over online privacy has moral repercussions. “People say, ‘I have nothing to hide, my Facebook page is super boring, I’m not a criminal.’ But you’re forgetting that some people have good reasons to have a private life online,” he says. He points to political activists, like Ukrainian protestors who attended rallies around Crimean succession. “The government had set up a stinger—a way to send SMS messages to everyone in the local area, telling them that their presence at an unlawful protest had been recorded. Other citizens could say: ‘I didn’t go to protest, so I don’t care about the stinger.'” But Gaylor believes this attitude is selfish; it ignores the reality that we’re all part of a global online community. “If you’re somebody who the system sees as normal, you could be harming those whom the system doesn’t see as normal,” he says. As long as the majority simply accepts personal tracking, the more companies–or even governments– will have an implicit mandate to use our data however they like. “We’re essentially saying it’s okay that our cookies are monitored,” says Gaylor.
The first two episodes of Do Not Track are launching at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 14 as part of the Storyscapes transmedia showcase and will be available online. Meanwhile, NYC-based festival goers will be able to watch the third and fourth episodes during festival week at what Gaylor has dubbed the “Anti-Genius Bar.” Privacy experts will be on hand to show you exactly what information your phone is sharing about you and to whom–and to help you secure your devices and social media accounts against unwanted tracking. “These are small steps,” says Gaylor. “But we can protect our identities.”