Scoville Units Unite

28 May

Erasing David

I went to see Erasing David at the DCA.

It was quite good, there were a number of things in it I thought could have been fleshed out into great points, and a number of those which were fleshed out which in the scope of the documentary appear unfounded.

The premise of the documentary is that David Bond got a letter from the Government basically saying whoops, we lost loads of personal info on you and your family and your bank details too. Sorry, hope you aren’t distressed about it. As you were.

He becomes curious (and anxious and paranoid) about the amount of data being held on each person by a vast array of government departments and companies.

The bulk of the film is a recording of him aiming to go on the run for 30 days whilst private eyes try to track him. This part falls a bit flat for reasons I will go into later (with spoilers).

The rest is made up of interviews and a small amount of recording before his escapade (and a tiny epilogue).

He interviews a number of people on the issues of privacy, from No2ID campaigners, members of Liberty and former Home Secretaries to a headteacher who is using biometrics in school and people who have been the victims of false positives when it comes to data.

The David Blunkett interview was revealing. Just today he is bemoaning the cancellation of ID Cards. In the documentary he is complaining about people prying into others private lives. A far cry from his usual Nothing to hide, nothing to fear nonsense. Maybe this was prompted by a number of tabloids raking into his personal life with him deciding that he did have things he wanted to hide.

There were two members of the general public interviewed who had been victims of duff data. The first was a woman who applied to work with children but failed the criminal background check. Someone with a similar name and same date of birth had a conviction for shoplifting meaning this woman was unsuitable to work with children. The second was a man who fell victim to Operation Ore. His credit card details had been stolen and used to buy, amongst other things, a membership to an online site with child pornography on it. Although the police decided something like 99.2% of the transactions were fraudulent they refused to budge on this one, thus branding him an evil pedo scum for life. He mentioned 39 people had committed suicide after being caught in the same operation. Two lives ruined due to wrongful data being held on them by the state.

Before he embarks on his adventure you see a number of interesting situations, from interviews with a psychiatrist to discuss possible mental health effects of the experience to flare ups with his 7month pregnant wife over him deciding to disappear and refusal to sign a form allowing a nursery to keep loads of data on his children.

These all through up questions to do with keeping accurate and relevant data for necessary lengths of time. unfortunately over the course of the film he is advocating all data bad held by everyone when relevant data held for appropriate lengths of time by the right people would have got to the heart of the issue and made a far more powerful case.

The second major part of the prelude is him investigating the vast amounts of data held on him by companies. He puts in 80 requests under the Data Protection Act to various governmental and private organisations to find out what data they hold on him and his child.

He gets back various amounts from a few pages – to a doorstop from Amazon. This is where one of the main flaws in his arguments creeps in. Amazon didn’t seek out info on him and collate it. He signed up to Amazon. He agreed to their terms. He bought lots of stuff and liked it, reviewed it and catalogued it. If he found out that Amazon had this info and sold it to someone that would be a major argument against the retention. If they would refuse to delete it – major argument.

When I say this I am not meaning to critisise David, but some decisions he took and that we all take. Whether willfully, negligibly or through ignorance we all give away massive amounts of data to various people. The one important point he does make – whilst visiting East Germany and discussing the Stasi – is that tiny amounts of data appear innocuous, but when you have tiny amounts of data about someone or something from lots of sources you can discover more than the sum of their parts.

When on the run, he takes a number of measures, avoiding using credit cards, paying cash, doubling back on himself etc. What leads to his discovery is not using a mobile phone (which he does – to access a site set up by the PIs!) or credit cards but being careless with data and social engineering.

When it came down to it it wasn’t fingerprint protected databases or CCTV but social engineering and binning important documents without shredding or destroying sensitive data that was his downfall.

I won’t say any more to avoid spoiling it.

The small amounts of data was underlined when he saw the private eyes operation room. Surrounding a scarily large photo of himself was a vast array of info they had managed to dredge up from 20 year old photos of his mother to his birth certificates, credit card receipts (which he had binned) and even some of his plans for his run which he had written down. They had also predicted some of his movements.

The last failing was that he didn’t hit home the real point of his paranoia about vast databases of info on him. It took 2 people working full time for a couple of weeks to track him down, during which they spent ages on foot tracking down information on him. With access to databases of this info they could have got loads of this info in a few hours of the first day.

Although there were a number of failings in the film it interested me for two main reasons. The first was that there are very few documentaries of good quality investigating the issues covered. The second was David himself. He laid himself bare for criticism by showing himself doing lots of silly things in the context of the film – showing his address, possibly credit card numbers, phone number on screen whilst talking about the importance of keeping data safe. He also revealed a number of personal issues in the film – a past driving conviction as held by the DVLA and in his meetings with the psychiatrist and during his time on the run he shows himself to becoming increasingly paranoid. I had no doubt that if he had managed to stay on the run for a couple of months he would have developed some more serious mental health problems.

And that is really endearing.

To try and highlight issues of privacy he was willing to sacrifice so much of his own.

To read more about the film go to the Erasing David site.

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