The furor surrounding whistleblower Edward Snowden’s blockbuster revelation that the National Security Agency is snooping on supposedly confidential communications is beginning to resemble Captain Renault’s “discovery” of gambling in Casablanca.
The NSA’s eavesdropping on American citizens has been a matter of public record at least since December 2005, when The New York Times reported that the super-secret agency had launched a domestic warrantless wiretapping program, of debatable legality, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
Yet it hasn’t, until now, been a widely held concern, maybe due to an American tendency to collective amnesia and a general willingness to give up a measure of personal privacy—and even some Fourth Amendment protections—for the sake of thwarting terrorism. Terms and Conditions May Apply, a documentary that opens Friday, July 12, in New York and additional cities in coming weeks, could change all that.
The film argues that the threat is worse, and more troubling, than mere NSA spying on U.S. citizens. Rapid advances in technology are giving corporate behemoths like Google, Facebook, and Amazon the ability to strip-mine vast amounts of deeply personal data for profit (and to share, on occasion—warrant or otherwise—with curious government agencies), leaving the average citizen naked and vulnerable to a predatory new world of capitalist robber barons and so-called Western democracies that in fact are potential tyrannies.
The movie’s mouthful of a title refers to the interminable legalese to which all but a tiny few Internet users thoughtlessly click their agreement. “Who the hell reads the terms and conditions?” demands one of the bratty school children in the animated satire South Park (the documentary makes deft fair-use of countless pop-culture touchstones). It turns out that the verbiage is carte blanche to loot and plunder the most intimate details of consumers’ personal and business lives and then use the information to target them like the proverbial fish in a barrel.
In a bit of winking mischief, a British retailer, GameStation, managed to get 7,000 customers to agree to terms and conditions that stated: “By placing an order via this Web site you agree to grant us a nontransferable option to claim, now and for ever more, your immortal soul.” In exchange, customers are permitted to enjoy the amenities of apparently indispensable online services—hardly a prudent trade.
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