Sun, 25 Apr 2010

Erasing (another) David

Nearly two years ago I met with the producer (Ashley Jones) and researcher (Rebecca Lloyd-Evans) for the film Erasing David. At the time the project was introduced to me as:

The director, David, is going to attempt to disappear in the UK to test the boundaries of our police, surveillance and database state, while being traced by our countries top private investigator. This 'stunt' will be used as a way of exploring the larger issues surrounding privacy.

I expressed reservations about the disappearance 'stunt' part of the project. It felt like too many constraints were needed to make it work. I saw the film last week, and they have managed to pull it off successfully. The presentation as a detective story with both the points of view – of the chased (David Bond) and of the chasers (Cerberus Investigations) – makes for an interesting thriller. One change from the early brief is that the film tests aspects of private surveillance and the database state, but the police and their many databases are left out. The team from Cerberus slowly builds a vast profile of David Bond mainly through querying online information and using traditional sleuthing techniques such as checking the bins of David and his parents (for which they had prior consent). The experiences of being under surveillance and of realising how much data is held on us by commercial companies and public organisations has affected David Bond and his family beyond the film.

One particularly interesting aspect of the film is that it explores privacy issues that are not always easy to represent visually. Too often privacy is depicted in films solely with CCTV. A CCTV control room does feature in the film but only briefly. One instance where the documentary is particularly efficient is in communicating both the mass of data held on us and how one can figure out what is held on them. There is a scene where David goes through the piles of responses to subject access requests he had sent (using the Data Protection Act). The thickest response was from Amazon. Another response describes his mood when he contacted that organisation.

A number of privacy experts are interviewed in the film. Terri Dowty from Action on Rights for Children (ARCH) in addition to her interview has published, on the film's website, a Privacy guide for parents (pdf) detailing the information collected about children from the moment they are born. It's worth browsing through it even if you don't have kids to fully realise the extent of data collection going on. The website hosts more information such as education packs. If after seeing the film you decide to send a few subject access request, you may also find my simple guide to the Freedom of Information and Data Protection Acts useful.

The cinema première is on 2010-04-29 and there will be a live Q&A from the Brixton Ritzy that will get beamed to other simultaneous screenings. It will also be shown on More4 on 2010-05-04 at 10pm.

Erasing David

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