SJC to screen online privacy documentary

Mike Easterling
Director Cullen Hoback will speak Monday at San Juan College about the issues featured in his film 'Terms and Conditions May Apply,' which is being shown at the college on Thursday.

FARMINGTON – Director Cullen Hoback says he didn’t set out to make a film that chronicles the dangers of using so-called “free” online services and explores the continuing disappearance of online privacy.

But when he was finished with “Terms and Conditions May Apply,” his 2013 documentary that will be shown Thursday, Oct. 29, at San Juan College, that’s where the project had taken him.

“The process — and I think this is how it works for me most of the time — is I start with a small idea and start drilling and drilling, and it turns into this rabbit hole,” he said last weekend from Los Angeles, where he was attempting to get a cut of his latest film, “What Lies Upstream," done in time to submit it for entry in the annual Sundance Film Festival. “It starts as something interesting and ends up being something terrifying.”

Hoback — who will make an appearance on campus Monday, Nov. 2, to discuss the documentary — said when he began work on the film, he was merely interested in exploring how the mushrooming availability of all forms of technology is changing society.

“I thought it was changing me in some profound way I couldn’t put my finger on,” he said.

But as he dug deeper, what he found took him in a different — and even more unsettling — direction.

What Hoback discovered is that when online users of such services as Google or Facebook click the “I Agree” button after skimming the terms of service page, they may not have any idea what they’ve just done, especially in terms of the personal information they’ve just consented to let those companies collect and who they’ve agreed to let them distribute it to.

“The problem with most of the online services is you have no bargaining power,” Hoback said, describing the either/or nature of those terms of service pages. “You either click ‘I Agree’ or you don’t get to use the service.”

And since Facebook and Google, in particular, have become practically omnipresent in modern society, it’s difficult to engage other people without agreeing to those terms, he said.

But what Cullen found can be dismaying, to say the least. Because of the way those lengthy and yawn-inspiring user-service pages are worded, many of the companies that provide the “free” services in question are allowed to collect user information and legally provide it to third-party users — including, in some cases, the government. That allows those third parties to compile extensive profiles of the individuals who use those services based on the web sites they visit, the apps they download, even the cell phone calls they make, as well as the personal information they provide about themselves, and their friends and family members, on such sites as Facebook.

All of that information becomes part of the digital trail each user leaves behind.

“Everything we do online is watched and being recorded,” he said. “And it’s held in perpetuity.”

Cullen said he isn’t trying to talk anyone out of (into?) withdrawing from the Digital Age. He just thinks digital users need to be aware of the degree to which their privacy is being compromised. He still uses the Internet, he said, though he is careful to use encrypted tools that protect certain aspects of his online privacy.

A screening of the documentary 'Terms and Conditions May Apply' by director Cullen Hoback will be held at San Juan College on Thursday.

That’s not the only change he’s made.

“It’s changed everything I do, from talking on the phone to the emails I send,” he said. “Having this infinite digital record is an alarming thing and makes me feel like big brother is always over my shoulder looking.”

Cullen makes approximately 30 appearances a year screening his film and talking about the issues it covers.

“I try to raise as much awareness around the disappearance of privacy as possible,” he said. “But I certainly don’t expect everybody to change everything.”

Cullen cringes at the idea that his presentation is a “lecture.” He described his presentation as an engaging experience and said he uses the people in the audience as examples.

“It’s a highly interactive game show,” he said, laughing.

Many of the most enthusiastic users of those free services are people in their teens and twenties, individuals who grew up in the Digital Age and never knew a world without cell phones, tablets and other electronic gadgets that allow them to stay connected with their friends at all times. For those raised in such an environment, the loss of privacy that comes with being able to access such services may seem like it just comes with the territory.

But to that throw-up-your-hands idea, Cullen argues, “We blindly accept what we are blind to.”

That’s a message that Traci Halesvass — assistant professor of English and writing at SJC and chairman of the One Book, One Community project at the school — hopes will resonate with those who attend the film screening and presentation by Cullen. She said “Terms and Conditions May Apply” illustrates many of the same loss-of-privacy issues raised in “The Circle," the Dave Eggers book that serves as this year’s One Book, One Community selection.

One Book, One Community is a project that encourages community members to read a book that has been selected after a lengthy suggestion and vetting process. In the fall of each year, organizers schedule several community events related to the book or its subject matter.

“‘Terms and Conditions’ goes over so many of these issues,” Halesvass said.

San Juan College already was planning on doing a short film series in the spring on the issues raised in “The Circle” – a 2013 dystopian suspense novel that focuses on the experiences of a young woman who goes to work for an enormous, monolithic tech company.

“We were looking for movies for that when we came across this one,” she said.

Halesvass and other members of the One Book, One Community committee managed to convince Cullen to come to the SJC campus to talk about his film. But they were less successful in their efforts to bring in Eggers, which apparently will end the long tradition of the author of the One Book, One Community selection making a local appearance.

“We heard that Dave Eggers, who wrote ‘The Circle,’ won’t use the Internet anymore,” Halesvass said. “That made it so we couldn’t even get a hold of him.”

Halesvass finally managed to establish contact with a representative of Eggers, and she said the author has agreed to answer a series of questions that local readers of the book have posed for him. Of course, she said, those questions were sent via the U.S. Postal Service, and she has not received the author’s responses yet.

“We were told he’s working on those and will get back to us,” Halesvass said.

This week’s screening of “Terms and Conditions” will dovetail with SJC’s observance of Cybersecurity Month in October, a series of events that features speakers addressing such issues as how to maintain your online security and how to keep your home safe.

The college also will present a Feb. 4 event in the Little Theatre that will wind up the One Book, One Community events for this year. Halesvass said organizers will convene a panel of online privacy and security experts.

Halesvass said her reading of “The Circle” and her growing awareness of the erosion of online privacy have done a great deal to change her habits when it comes to the use of digital technology.

“I used to be a regular Facebook person, but it’s going to be very hard to find me on Facebook now,” she said, adding that she no longer shops online, either.

She said the community’s response to “The Circle” has been good, with many local classes and book clubs reporting their students and members have read it. She encouraged those readers to attend the screening of Cullen’s film and his presentation to explore those issues further.

“You might think you’re safe, but nobody is,” she said. “And I think people need to be aware of that.”

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

If you go

What: Screening of the documentary “Terms and Conditions May Apply”

When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 29

Where: The Little Theatre on the San Juan College campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington

Admission: Free

For more information: Call 505-566-3430


What: Presentation by “Terms and Conditions May Apply” director Cullen Hoback

When: 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 2

Where: Performance Hall on the San Juan College campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington

Admission: Free

For more information: Call 505-566-3430