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A scary new doc about how privacy died

POSTED July 16, 2013 10:58 p.m.

Whatever happened to the Fourth Amendment? You know, that bulwark of our right to privacy? Its protections against government intrusion and coercion aren't exactly dead — not yet — but they're going fast. Because we can't seem to stop giving them away.

It's useful to have all the bad news about this subject assembled in one place, and Cullen Hoback's "Terms and Conditions May Apply," a new documentary that's both fascinating and appalling, does it with chilling concision. The film is a long-overdue public service.

Hoback begins with those little blather boxes we all encounter online — statements of "Google's Terms of Service" or "PayPal's User Agreement" or iTunes' "Software License Agreement." We encounter similar annoyances everywhere, from Facebook and YouTube to Amazon.com, Pinterest and OkCupid. Why do we never actually read these things? Why do we just scroll down to the bottom and click on "Agree"? Brian Lawler, a typography specialist at California Polytechnic State University, says: "If I were trying to make a user agreement uninviting, I would choose a small sans-serif font, and I would set it in all caps. Then the type becomes a texture rather than words and spaces." So true!

Thus, few of us have any idea what we're agreeing to — a disastrous mistake. (Hoback notes a Wall Street Journal report that consumers lose $250 billion each year because of overlooked surprises in the fine print.) And online companies grow ever bolder in the conditions they seek to impose. LinkedIn, for example, wants "irrevocable, worldwide, perpetual, unlimited, assignable" rights to your personal information. And you'll recall Instagram's determination to sell photos posted on its site for advertising purposes, without compensation.

With the explosion of the Internet — and especially social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter — we have become alarmingly blase about submitting information that once would have been thought private — name, age, address, photographs, opinions, up-to-the-minute locations — to the care of giant companies. And what becomes of all that info? According to the faintly sinister Google chief Eric Schmidt, that's "not really a Google decision. It's actually a political or public policy decision, enforced by different governments in different ways."

In early 2001, according to Hoback's film, more than a dozen privacy bills were introduced in Congress. But then came 9/11 and then the Patriot Act, in which President George W. Bush gave the go-ahead for surveillance of all emails, Internet activity and cellphone communication — only by terrorists, of course. One of the film's many experts muses, "What if the data collection the Patriot Act required became the foundation of a whole new business model ... of the modern Internet as we know it?" The congressional privacy proposals, by the way, all died.

As has been noted elsewhere, we are no longer the customers of the big Internet companies; we are their product. Our assiduously collected personal data are a vast advertising treasure house, and the companies lobby strenuously against any bothersome restrictions on their use of it. Naturally, this ever-swelling trove is also of keen interest to various government agencies — FBI, CIA, NSA, the usual suspects. Technically, the government is prohibited from harvesting this sort of personal data from non-terrorist citizens. However, because of a "loophole" in the Fourth Amendment, the government can acquire such data from third parties — the Internet companies — without having to jump through any annoying judicial hoops. And the companies have proved only too happy to help. (There's a startling anecdote in the film, told by a former Facebook employee, about a high-echelon Facebook meeting at which a top FBI official suddenly popped his head in to say hi.)

You can see where this is going. In fact, it's already there. How can we pretend to have private lives when all kinds of people we never have met know all about them? Consider the angry father who stormed into a Target store in Minneapolis one day, furious that the store had been sending his teenage daughter sales alerts about cribs, rattles and other baby gear. What the father didn't know was that his daughter was in fact pregnant. But the store knew.

Is there any way to fend off the total surveillance state to which we seem to draw closer every year? In the film, a security specialist named Frank Heidt says: "We're opting in a centimeter at a time. Soon you're pretty far down the road, and you look behind you and wonder how you got where you are."

Where we are right now is a scary place. Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT, tells Hoback: "We have allowed ourselves to be smitten. We want this technology to grow and grow, and we don't want anything to rain on our parade. We have woken up to the privacy concerns, in my view, four years too late."

Kurt Loder is the film critic for Reason Online.

 

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