A new film shows how much we knew, pre-Snowden, about Internet surveillance

Snowden's disclosures "didn't feel much like revelations," says the director

There was a moment in Terms and Conditions May Apply, a new documentary about the dangers of using the Internet, when I started feeling nervous about the iPhone in my bag. The sales rep for a security and surveillance company was in the middle of showing how the gadget he sells can suck data from smartphones, and he stopped for a second and noted that iPhones—to a degree unusual even among data-gathering devices—collects reams of information about their owners. After the movie, as I pulled out my phone to answer a text, find a wine store, and decide whether I should take the subway or a cab to the party I was late for, I felt apprehensive. What was the phone recording about me? What could it tell someone else? Did I have any choice, at this point, but to hand over these details to this sleek black slab?

These are the feelings that Cullen Hoback’s documentary invokes, not just about phones, but about living even the most humdrum of lives on the Internet. The film goes point by point through the history of online data collection and its potential dangers, and it’s convincing enough to make your next Google search or Facebook post feel like a fraught choice.

What’s most interesting about the film, though, is that it documents everything there was to know about data collection, government surveillance, and the cooperation of Internet service providers before Edward Snowden leaked information about the National Security Agency’s surveillance program. Hoback poses plenty of questions about the state, private companies and surveillance, but the one his movie most clearly answers is: Should Snowden’s revelations have surprised anyone—or, at least, anyone who was paying attention?

“They didn’t feel much like revelations,” said Hoback on Saturday, at a panel following a screening of the film in New York City. What was most interesting to him, he said, was the nature of this smoking gun—that it was phone records from Verizon, delivered by a whistleblower, that finally caught the public’s attention.

Hoback’s film begins with the premise that privacy is a real worry in the digital age and that, in the aftermath of September 11, concerns about loosening standards were swept aside by politicians. It wasn’t hard, the movie suggests, for Internet companies to play along with this new regime. After all, “anonymity wasn’t profitable,” Hoback says. He shows how extensive data collection has become, interviewing experts who’ve been watching digital wiretapping expand and normal people who’ve bumped against the consequences, like Joe Lipari, a comedian whose Facebook riff on Fight Club launched him into a yearslong process fighting charges that he had made terrorist threats, and Leigh Van Bryan, a British tourist who was refused entry into America after he asked a friend, via Twitter, if she was free for “quick gossip/prep before I go and destroy America?” (With his hard-partying ways, that is.)

The film is relatively short—just 80 minutes—but Hoback’s interviewees outline a system of information collection and surveillance as deep-reaching and as broad as the one that Snowden’s documents detailed. Max Schrems, the German student who requested his entire Facebook file under European law, shows Hoback a stack of paper 100,000 sheets deep, reflecting just a few years of tepid Facebook use. The file, he points out, contains more information than any Stazi file ever had: in other words, the government doesn’t need to keep a file on you, when Facebook and Google already do. A former Google employee dismisses the argument that the company doesn’t keep records on individuals: Even though Google says all information is anonymized after a few years, the “underlying data is still there to be deanonymized at some time,” the ex-Googler says.

Hoback interviews Electronic Frontier Foundation and ACLU experts who presume, based on the evidence they already gathered, that there’s a broad system of government surveillance and that Internet and telecommunications regularly accede to government requests for information. He shows candidate Barack Obama saying that “the surveillance program is one I believe is necessary for our national security.”

Terms and Conditions May Apply is less clear about the consequences of those incursions for average citizens. Hoback interviews a few people who had planned creative hackings of Britain’s royal wedding—a group who planned to dress up like zombies and a street theater troupe—and who were arrested before they actually managed to do anything. It’s not totally clear, though, how the government used data surveillance to identify and stop them. Hoback also waves his hands around the phone tapping that journalists at Rupert Murdoch’s papers engaged in, implying, somewhat confusingly, that it’s no accident that Murdoch, with his connections to the highest level of politics, was involved in this sort of activity.

So far, the people who have paid the highest price are those, like Edward Snowden, who have revealed the details of online government surveillance—even when, as Hoback shows, the scope of these programs wasn’t surprising. On Saturday, another panelist, Microsoft senior researcher danah boyd, said the content of Snowden’s revelations were less interesting than the way that he released this information and that the government responded. “We’re starting to see new road maps for civil disobedience,” she said. Each time a person like Snowden or Bradley Manning steps forward, she said, they are testing out new variations of civil disobedience against the surveillance state, figuring out how best to resist incursions into privacy.

Most of us, though, aren’t resisting; we’re living with the vague feeling that it’s not quite right that you’re handing over so much information on a daily basis. After all, as Zeynep Tufecki, who studies technology and society, says in the film: “You have nothing to hide until you do.”

Disclosure: CJR has received funding from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to cover intellectual-property issues, but the organization has no influence on the content.

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Sarah Laskow is a writer and editor in New York City. Her work has appeared in print and online in Grist, Good, The American Prospect, Salon, The New Republic, and other publications. Tags: , ,