by Susan Bartley
Director: Cullen Hoback
Cinematography: Ben Wolf
There’s a moment when the filmmakers follow a European student who, because of EU Law, is able to demand the records that any tech company has reserved on the user. The student requests his file from Facebook. He had only been on the site for three years with moderate use and still, within a few days, he was provided with 1000+ pages of every single piece of activity ever recorded on the platform - every chat, every post, every like, every browse, every engagement. Everything.
Unfortunately, America doesn’t have the same policy.
While this alone is terrifying enough, even worse is what it could mean when the NSA enters the picture and demands that these tech giants turn over the information. What we've learned is that rather than forfeiting their rights to maintain this information and keep it private, they've colluded with the government, providing whatever is requested to avoid conflict or increased regulation.
The exhausted criticism is often "Well, I’m not doing anything wrong. I have nothing to hide,” to which the simple response is you have nothing to hide until you have something to hide. How would you feel if the government opened your mail, read all your personal correspondences and financial records, and categorized you as a threat accordingly? For some reason many consider the extensive preservation of digital documents permissible, while physical documentation is a violation (which could and, I guess should, fall into some type of -ism connoting technological bias; i.e., digitalism).
It all points to a much larger question - will privacy ever return and will people ever care to demand it? I assume it'll happen when the limits are pushed. Hardcore History's Dan Carlin uses the term "legal drift" in which by agreeing to a certain precedent, courts can and will push the boundaries of how laws are applied. The law is a constantly evolving entity, and it's really up to whoever most pleases the court that the court will inform us on what is and is not just. Every year the supreme court rules upon cases that use this exact tactic - whether for liberal policies (civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, etc.), or for conservative agenda (gun rights, regulation, etc.).
Sure, I and most others have nothing terrorist-related that to hide. But what happens when a Judge rules that it’s lawful to use our information in order to investigate a domestic crime that possibly has a connection which is beyond the purview of our constitution? That is, on one end, a highly progressive and global social justice organization, or at the other, a radical terrorist regime fighting in the name of God. All it takes is one big case to liberalize what can and cannot be examined. For instance, the doc features a British Facebook or Twitter user who simply voiced his desire to organize and protest somewhere in London, resulting in the Police coming to his house and arresting him. A similar situation is demonstrated in the 2015 documentary "Divorce Corp," in which a father who lost his child visitation rights, subsequently criticized the judge on his blog for bias, requesting that his readers help file for the judge's dismissal through petitioning the court's regulatory agency to launch an investigation (this occurred in Indiana and I'm not sure what this agency was called). However, it turns out the judge's wife was on that agency. As a result, the judge found the father in contempt of court and sentenced the man to five years in prison, which he's still serving out.
Both cases demonstrate how, in small ways, we're already witnessing the corrosion of certain inalienable rights, however slowly, as the line between digital and analog begins to blur. We have gained rights (see liberal laws), but that doesn't mean we should forfeit others because it's not yet an issue. I have a suspicion that if the father was a reporter for The Indianpolis Star the judge would have been far more lenient, in which case, it's once again bias against the format; a digital blog isn't powerful, a news paper is. I'm sure that both situations were more complicated than the victims made them out to be, and we don't get as full of a taste as the other side. Nevertheless, there are people who are facing legal consequences for expressing the rights guaranteed to them.
If you don't think it's gotten that bad, refer to this scene from Se7en (below), which I recall - when first seeing it in the 90s - as excitingly heavy, and very conspiratorial (I was in high school). If it weren't for its prescience, the scene would play as uninspired today .
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