For the past year or so since Walgreens began pushing its Balance Rewards card, I have steadfastly refused to sign on. Every time I go to the check-out it becomes a conversation. "Do you have a Balance Rewards card?" No. "Would you like to sign up for one?" No, thanks. "Are you sure?" Yes, actually. Quite sure.
That usually prompts an incredulous look.
I couldn't care less if Walgreens tracks my intake of toothpaste and coffee creamer. I usually pay with a credit card anyway, so no doubt that data is being logged somewhere. I'm under no illusions of anonymity. This is merely my line in the sand. It's an easy one to draw because I have the choice to opt out and still access what I need.
Not so, when it comes to iTunes or any other digital utility, for that matter — Netflix, Twitter, email, mobile phone, all of it. There's no sidestepping the contractual terms of service and that damnable "agree" button, which is little more than a formality at this point. Of course we click on it, lest find ourselves banished to a far less convenient analogue world.
"What exactly are we agreeing to?" asks filmmaker Cullen Hoback in his new documentary "Terms and Conditions May Apply," which traces all this data collection to its logical conclusion: Giving the U.S. government access to information with nary a warrant. Hoback finished work on the film earlier this year. It is one of those flukes of timing that disclosures by former N.S.A. contractor Edward Snowden about domestic surveillance would put these issues front and center just as the film hits theaters. It screens Saturday and Tuesday at the Siskel Film Center, with Hoback in Chicago Tuesday for a post-show discussion.
A smart, agile doc sweetened with bits and bobs of relevant pop culture — including sardonic clips from "South Park" and comedian Eddie Izzard's stand-up act that address the issue, and a great snippet from "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory": "Don't talk to me about contracts, Wonka, I use them myself. They're strictly for suckers!" — the film begins with a remedial sensibility and then connects the dots into something far more complicated and sinister.
Hoback talks to a professor of social studies of science and technology at MIT who boils down our collective ambivalence: "This is an area in which we have allowed ourselves to be smitten," she says, "we want this technology to grow and grow and we don't want anything to rain on our parade. And we have woken up to the privacy concerns, in my view, at least four years too late."
Hoback's point of view is never in question — he finds all of it concerning — but his approach is decidedly unwonky (you sense how attuned he is to the demands of entertaining an audience), and the questions he asks are good ones. There is a "60 Minutes"-style ambush interview he attempts with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg that is both gratuitous and telling: When it is someone else (say, a well-intentioned if prying filmmaker) looking to gather info, technology executives push back without thinking twice.
"You have nothing to hide — until you do," says a sociology professor in the film. So much data is being collected without the usual checks and balances. And dumb errors are being made. Hoback talks to a young man from Ireland who was detained for hours at U.S. passport control because of a tweet sent weeks earlier to a friend that read: "free this week for a gossip/prep before I go and destroy America?"
"It means to go wild, get drunk," he found himself explaining to skeptical officials. If he had tweeted about painting the town red, he surmises, "they would have me down for graffiti as well, wouldn't they?"
Hoback: "You look at the nature of what happened in Boston (the recent marathon bombings), clearly the surveillance systems aren't working effectively enough, if that's the objective. And you have to ask yourself: What are they actually stopping? But I think the primary question needs to be not even do the systems work — but is this a mass infringement on civil liberties?"
Anyone's digital life can be taken out of context and shaped into something potentially eyebrow-raising. Hoback doesn't offer up any statistics of how prevalent this problem actually is, but the anecdotes are compelling. "It's been interesting," he said, "since I finished the film I've heard more stories like this. Someone the other day was telling me that their father had been pulled aside at an airport because of a search he had made on Google. He was writing a novel and had searched for a scentless poison and as a byproduct of that he was taken aside and questioned about it."
Let's step back for a moment. In 2006, records of AOL search logs were leaked to the public, including that of a user (identified only by a number) with a worrisome search history: "how to kill your wife," "wife killer," "dead people," "murder photo," and "decapatated (sic) photos." One of the more interesting stops Hoback makes in the film is a visit to Jerome Schwartz, a friend from college who worked as a writer on the CBS procedural "Cold Case." Hoback shows him the list and asks if he's ever searched those terms in the course of writing a script. The answer is yes. To everything.
"That's always what's scared me when I was entering those search terms," Schwartz tells him. "If there was some automated system that just red-flags you based on a search term, they're probably not going to look and say: oh, yeah, he was probably working on a TV show and that's why he was Googling 'How to murder my cheating wife.'"
"Terms and Conditions May Apply" screens 5:30 p.m. Saturday and 8 p.m. Tuesday. The Tuesday screening will be followed by a Q&A with filmmaker Cullen Hoback. Go to http://www.siskelfilmcenter.org/termsandconditions.
A rare find
There isn't much plot in 1947's "Juke Joint." And the production values and acting are shaky at best. But the film has a time-capsule quality and a loose charm all its own, especially the juke joint swing dance sequences. Directed by and starring Spencer Williams (who would later go on to play Andy in the "Amos 'n Andy" TV series), it features an all-black cast and was believed ost until unearthed in a Texas warehouse in the '80s. It screens Friday at dusk (around 8:30 p.m.) as part of Black Cinema House's outdoor summer film series. Go to chicagofilmarchives.org and click on "calendar & events."
Old school rodeo riders
A dusty, melancholy Western starring Robert Mitchum as a veteran bull rider who has seen better days, 1952's "The Lusty Men" (directed by Nicholas Ray) screens 7 p.m. Saturday at the University of Chicago's Doc Films. Go to docfilms.uchicago.edu.
The Portage Theater remains locked up tight but programmer Dennis Wolkowicz has found an alternate location for his annual Silent Summer Film Festival, albeit one a bit outside the city limits. This year's fest (with screenings every Friday through Aug. 23) will be held at the Des Plaines Theatre in Des Plaines, with live organ accompaniment. First up this weekend is 1921's "The Sheik" starring Rudolph Valentino. Go to silentfilmchicago.com or desplainestheatre.com.