How hard is it to maintain your privacy in the information age? In this day of the unquenchable database maw, pretty hard.
That's the message of Erasing David, which begins a video-on-demand run today (3/12/10) on the iTunes Movie Store and Amazon VOD (it's also playing today at South by Southwest). Directed by David Bond and Melinda McDougall, this occasionally overblown documentary finds a gimmick to illustrate just how hard it is to keep your personal information to yourself in an era of seeming total access.
Bond, a London-based filmmaker, is the first-person subject of the film. He decides to see if he can literally take himself off the grid and, to enhance the drama of the challenge, he hires a private security firm to put its best operatives on his trail. He'll attempt to disappear; they'll attempt to find him.
The film intertwines three storylines. There's Bond himself, on the run, bopping back and forth between England and the European mainland. There are the private eyes, stealing the garbage from his house, monitoring his email and his cell phone, spying on his pregnant wife. And there's the backstory: Bond's earlier efforts to find out just how much information is out there about him that he's unaware of.
The answer to the last question is: a ton. As he discovers, every phone call, every credit-card purchase, every website he visits and car trip he makes into London are recorded somewhere. A resourceful or unscrupulous private eye can easily build a dossier on his habits without a lot of effort.
You run into this every day without even realizing it. Amazon.com has software to analyze your purchases and recommend books or other products you'd like. That's what the whole Genius program is about on iTunes. And most people have seen enough high-tech thrillers on TV to know that their credit cards, their cell phones, even the E-Z Pass on their cars render them visible and trackable, if anyone cares.
Bond goes a little further, interviewing people who have had negative experiences based on their names appearing in faulty databases. A man whose identity was stolen - and then used to subscribe to child-pornography websites - recounts stories of being arrested and unable to clear his name. Something similar happened to a young woman, who was rejected for several jobs because someone with a similar name and the same birth date popped up as a felon in a database.
Bond's great escape is a tad hokey and seems not particularly well thought out. On the one hand, he's on the run; on the other, he's trying to have a normal life. So he visits his parents and continues to use email and his cell phone, practically begging his pursuers to find him. Though he avoids using credit cards, he finds that he's barely a step ahead of his pursuers - at least until he goes off to hide in the woods.
Bond himself is a likable if unremarkable presence, amiable and empathetic without being a smart-ass á la Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock. On the other hand, there's not much that's compelling about him either.
Still, the information he offers is intriguing, if only for the way it raises your level of paranoia. It's the kind of doc that keeps you watching, if not enthralled.