There’s a free sneak preview screening at the Free Word Centre (arranged with Index on Censorship) on the 16th April.
Trying to Escape the Surveillance State
Britain is one of the world’s leading surveillance states. Privacy International, an advocacy group, ranks the U.K. right behind flagrant offenders like Russia and China. But such concerns didn’t hit home for British filmmaker David Bond until the U.K. government lost a slew of data on his newborn daughter. In response, Bond decided to see what it would take to escape detection for a month in his data-happy homeland. The experiment turned into a documentary, Erasing David, now available for download from iTunes and Amazon.com. Bond sat down with TIME to talk about his film.
What made you finally want to get off the grid?
I got a letter from the U.K. government in 2007, saying they had lost my daughter’s details. It was pretty stressful experience — they lost her name, her date of birth, my name, my bank account details, our address. It really freaked me out and made me think that if that type of data can be lost with a kid that age, what risk are the rest of us at?
It seems like privacy is an oft-discussed concern in Britain. What has the government done that’s been cause for alarm?
There’s always a balance between privacy and security. You’ve got to know where you want to draw that line, and for various reasons, the British government has drawn the line in a pretty frightening place. I think those reasons are terrorism, fear of crime and also the fact that we didn’t we have the problems in the Second World War that our European neighbors did. We don’t have the kind of collective memory of what its like to live in a state that surveils its population.
How’d you structure your escape for the film?
We went looking for private investigators, and found these amazing guys called Cerberus, who are known as a group who always find their man. They took on the challenge. From that point, we had to plan the date the disappearance would be and give them very limited information about me — just my name and photo.
Did you meet with anyone or get any tips before the chase started?
I had some obvious advice like, “Don’t use your cell phone,” and some then some really cool advice like, “Don’t take tons of cash because you might lose it all. Instead, use an ATM, but only use it right before you travel.” The other people I met were victims of the database state, people who had suffered as a result of details being lost or misappropriated. I met a girl who couldn’t get a job because she’s on some criminal database as a shoplifter, but she never did that. I met a guy who was caught up in an operation to do pornography on the web, but his name was just spelled wrong. These nightmare stories result from the increasingly digitized world that we live in.
So once the chase began, what was the first day like?
I took pretty serious precautions. I booked a ticket on Eurostar — the train to Paris — in someone else’s name, and then I immediately went to the Eurostar station and switched the ticket to my name and left. I was out of the country within forty minutes. But I knew I had to come back, because I didn’t want to do a film about whether you could live privately abroad. The PIs did say to me, “Go anywhere in the world. We’ll catch you.” But I ended up coming back to Britain.
Did they set up traps for you along the way?
They came up with a bunch of really cunning stuff. They set up a website called whereisdavid.co.uk and sent me an e-mail saying, “Hey, we know where you are! And here it is on this website!” I knew that they might track me if I visited it, but I went to an Internet cafe and checked it out, and sure enough, they had loads of information on me about where I’d already been. They were hoping to pin me on my IP address but they also were driving me into a state of nervousness and paranoia. I also had deleted my Facebook page before I went away — I thought it would be an easy way to get to me. But they’d managed to harvest my friend’s details from Facebook. Even when you delete your profile, loads of data stay up there. They made a fake profile of me called Phileas Fogg, as in the guy from Around the World in 80 Days, and they sent it to my friends saying, “Hey, I’m on the run, I’d love to get in touch.” And loads of them responded.
What was your downfall?
I wanted to last 30 days, but they caught me a little before that. My wife was heavily pregnant while I was on the run, and she got ill. She needed to go to the hospital and she needed me to come [with her]. I took a lot of precautions: I was really careful about how I entered the hospital, but they hacked into her medical details, and they knew she was going to be there and assumed it would draw me out of hiding.
What was unexpected about the experience?
I was really surprised about how much information is gathered about children in the UK and stored online. Schools are regularly fingerprinting kids in the UK to allow access to libraries — but still, its fingerprinting. The really terrifying thing I found is that I feel like we’re normalizing our kids, both through these activities and things like iPhones and Facebook apps. We’re normalized to living an utterly exposed life. But there’s value in privacy — its a tremendously uplifting and strengthening feeling, to feel like you can withdraw. Not because you’ve got anything to hide; just because you want to.
Hitting my stride. Got some good ones under my belt today. The documentary Erasing David, from director David Bond, is a very funny, and very entertaining movie that also works to scare the crap out of you. David lives in the UK, which is an even more intrusive surveillance state than we’ve got here, believe it or not. In an attempt to find out how much data there is on himself, he disappears for thirty days and hires private detectives to find him. The film follows his attempts to stay off the grid, as well as the detectives’ attempts to find him. It’s fascinating and truly chilling, and the film may change the way you feel about your own privacy. As one of the talking heads in the film says, privacy is one of those things you only ever feel when it’s taken away. David’s hope is to find out far one has to go to be free of what his wife calls “data-rape,” and it’s frightening – although not too terribly surprising – when he does. Put it this way – if you have no job, no friends, and live in a hole in the ground, or an abandoned building, you’re probably going to be able to live a private life. Which is good news for one or two of the folks who’ve been commenting here, but bad news for the rest of us. This is a really good film, and an important one. It’s running on VOD now, and at the Q&A, the filmmakers said it’s also now available on iTunes. Check it out. It’s not often such important information comes your way in such an entertaining package.
Thanks to WAMG for this review of the film:
12th March 2010
Thanks to the Wall Street Journal for this great review on their blog.
In ‘Erasing David,’ a Filmmaker Vanishes and Challenges Investigators To Find Him
By Michelle Kung
The first week of Austin’s South by Southwest festival focuses on film and interactive trends and events, so it seems only fitting that “Erasing David,” a documentary about online privacy, premiered here. The film, which debuted on iTunes and AmazonVOD the same day it opened at SXSW, centers on British filmmaker David Bond, who challenges two private investigators to find him — using only publicly available data — as he attempts to disappear for a month. “I thought it would be a lot more exciting and fun,” said Bond. “But it turned out to be quite a bit more freaky and paranoia-inducing than I expected.”
Bond first got the idea for the film in 2007, when he received a letter from the U.K. government saying they had lost his four-month-old daughter’s child benefit details, including her date of birth, address and bank account information. Concerned — and curious — about the state of privacy, civil rights and the database state in the U.K., he decided to make a documentary, though he wanted to structure it in a way similar to fictional thrillers like “The Conversation,” to make it compelling. Bond put together a team of filmmakers he trusted to shoot the investigators at work while he “ran.” He packed his bags in January of 2009, and found himself in the “really weird” position of having no creative control for a large chunk of his film.
The Wall Street Journal: In the film, you state that the U.K. is among the top-three monitored countries in the world.
It scores really badly according to the academics. For example, we have this thing that’s called the ring of steel around the financial center in London since the IRA bombings in the ‘70s and ‘80s. I feel like we have moved in the UK from being a beacon of liberties — being the birth place of democracy and the Magna Carta and all that – to being like an example of how not to do it.
Your wife is pregnant in the film. Was it hard to convince her to go along with this?
It looks awful in the film, I know. But we planned the disappearance and there were lots of things in place before we discovered she was pregnant. It was a tough discussion but it was one where she kind of knew what we lined up to make the film happen. So she was very understanding. And as you saw, it wasn’t a bed of roses for her by any means. I’m still kind of on my knees groveling as we speak.
You’re releasing the film on VOD in conjunction with your premiere here at SXSW. Was that a purposeful move?
That was part of the attraction for us, absolutely, because we know how hard it is to take a documentary into the U.S. market, let alone on that has the added complication of being a British documentary with an unusual genre structure. We really feel like there is an audience out there in the US for the topic, and being able to access that interest online is an exciting model for us.
Given the subject matter of privacy, how much are you using social media to publicize the film?
We use it up to a point. We have to be very, very careful with our disclaimers around it. We never use people’s e-mails or anything else. We encourage people to set up not fake but spam e-mail addresses in order to receive information from us. I think the answer is we are really excited by it and we really use it. But we are also very keenly aware of the privacy issues involved.
Directors: David Bond, Melinda McDougall (co-director)
In ERASING DAVID, documentary filmmaker David Bond attempts to drop off the grid of surveillance life for thirty days. Increasingly dismayed about the content and quantity of personal information available to the world at large, Bond employs all manner of tactics to learn what is out there about him, how it was acquired, and how to stop it. Well-placed flashbacks show us just how it all snowballed until Bond saw no other way to truly discover the truth than to utterly subvert it.
In the early stages of his quest, Bond hires an amusingly able privacy consultant, who scares Bond by routinely popping up, either physically or via some sort of unexpected bit of technology (hello, baby monitor). What is at first somewhat funny and very interesting steadily builds into the tension that runs through the film. To make matters even worse (and to turn the film into a bit of good, old-fashioned chase story), Bond hires two of Britain’s best private investigators to track him down as he spend his month “on the run.” The PIs on his trail use good old-fashioned detective work to track Bond – they start with just his name, finding themselves rummaging through his trash, and pretending to be him on the phone. But the availability of information on the internet makes their job frighteningly and consistently easy. As if these stakes are not high enough, Bond also has a baby and a pregnant wife at home, who is none to pleased with his idea to strike out on such a ride in the final trimester of her pregnancy.
As David criss-crosses Europe and gets himself into increasingly close scrapes with his would-be captors, ERASING DAVID begins to feel legitimately frightening – both in terms of the physical chase and in terms of how Bond’s information has been so readily accessed. But of course there’s not just the basic issue of people knowing things about you that you may not feel you have expressly allowed them to know, there’s also the deeply unsettling possibility that this information will be misused. And it’s not just in terms of fraudulent activity, as Bond places a huge emphasis on false positives in government-gathered information. He meets young Emma Budd who, upon applying for a job, was the victim of a false positive on her criminal record – a person with the same birthdate and a “similar name” had a shoplifting conviction. She didn’t get the job and her entire life was turned upside down. ERASING DAVID is scary enough for the Bond family, but the consistent theme that this could happen to you runs deeply throughout the proceedings.
In just over a week on the run, Bond turns paranoid. But it’s not so much paranoia when he’s actually being followed, now is it? Paranoia turns to loneliness and wackiness. Bond acutely feels the pain of what he has only temporarily given up in his quest. And it does become a quest. Bond goes to ever-increasing lengths to hide – even setting off for a remote valley in Wales. But the point of this experiment is not for Bond to hide out somewhere remote, he needs to attempt a normal existence. He needs to prove it is indeed possible.
Is it? The film’s basic conceit already makes everything tenuous enough, but the film’s score, packed with building strings and pounding drums and ticking clocks, kicks ERASING DAVID up to a new level. There is something of great importance at stake here – and when it’s all over, it’s not just David who wants to be erased.
David and the PIs contributed to an excellent piece on this week’s Broadcasting House on Radio 4 (Sunday 22 November). Ace Radio 4 reporter Chris Vallance follows in David’s footsteps as he attempts to spend a day without leaking data…
You can listen again here:
(22 November 2009)
The Erasing David bit is at 32 mins and 25 secs..
The radio piece also features the wonderful Nick Rosen. Nick’s website is full of cool articles, including easy tips on how to live Off Grid..
by Liz Tramer
What would you do if I could tell you that I knew your mood on January 1, 2003, or your wife’s maiden name? What about where your parent’s lived, your food allergy or your personality type? You might think that this “big brother” society doesn’t exist, or since we’ve never met, I can’t possibly know that information. You’d be dead wrong. Erasing David proves without a reasonable doubt that we currently live in an Orwellian world, and most people are unknowing participants. When filmmaker David Bond received a government letter stating that his, and millions of others, data had been lost, including his name, birth date and bank details he was taken aback.David became curious about just how much personal information was available to the public. He decided to try and go off the grid for 30 days. His journey for privacy has astounding implications that will affect the way you conduct your everyday life.
When David received a generic letter about the loss of his “identity,” he began to wonder just how much information had been collected about him and how that information was obtained. His research led to a shocking discovery. There was a mountain of information on him. His moods were gauged on days by orders he’d placed on Amazon or from entries on the Internet. David wondered if so much data had been collected on his past activities, how easy would it be to track his future movements.
It wasn’t enough to just disappear; he wanted to know if he could be found. For this reason, he hired two private detectives to try and locate him once he tried to become lost among the crowd. David discussed the project with his pregnant wife and tried to convince her that this endeavor was being done both for their family’s future and to ensure their child’s safety. Once he had all parties on board, the race was on. Roles had been assigned: the detectives were the hunters and David became the hunted.
He snuck out of his home in the middle of the night and began his journey. Along the way, he realized that his phone, e-mail and credit card information all left a trail. The more time he spent around others, the greater the likelihood of information being revealed. Even a visit to his family and the locations he would consider safe, became places of discovery.
As the film progresses, David becomes more paranoid and incredibly isolated, leaving viewers wondering if the cost of privacy needs to be complete isolation. “At the time (of the experiment), I barely slept. I began to have paranoid thoughts about everybody I met or even passed in the street. I wondered if people were agents of the Private Investigators. I even began to wonder if my producer (and great friend) Ashley had betrayed me in order to make the film turn out a certain way,” David said.
As David faced loneliness and despair, the private investigators were able to gather birth certificate, marriage licenses, photos, and childhood information, and compile an accurate and revealing story of David’s life and personality. Through the public information the investigators gathered, for al intents and purposes, they were able to transform into David Bond when necessary.
Erasing David is a riveting game of cat and mouse. Director David Bond’s quest for anonymity reveals to viewers how much of your information is public, and the frightening future implications. Bond said that after completing the project he “routinely questions exchanges of data and information that most people don’t notice.” After watching the film, you will never look at filling out a form or surfing the Web the same way.
Immediately following its premiere at SXSW at 8 p.m. on March 12, Erasing David will be available for online rental across the U.S. for the duration of the festival. For more information, or to watch the video online, visit http://cineticfilmbuff.com/slate/erasing-david.
Erasing David – You think you are being watched living in the United States. Well, the United Kingdom is the third highest surveillance state in the world and it is home to David Bond. As an experiment, David wanted to test the waters and see where his paper footprints say about him. What could bills and purchase habits online provide for the government or any interested party in tracking him down? So for a month he decided to investigate by leaving his life behind and dare a pair of experts to find him. Erasing David might begin like a Spurlockian exercise, but the discoveries are far more chilling than the fat and sugar intake of fast food. Despite the stakes being little more than a game between this particular mouse and cats, Bond’s film – a real-lifeRunning Man for those familiar with Stephen King’s (aka Richard Bachman’s) original story – still evolves into a thriller of some magnitude as our own paranoia of a superhighway becoming an invisible peeper into our private worlds comes front and center. Many of us still walked into a McDonald’s at some point, but we may think twice the next time the convenience of our daily lives might be making it opportune for the many Big Brothers out there to know more than we care about us.
Erasing David is showing at next week’s SXSW and I can’t recommend it enough.
Filmmaker David Bond grew increasingly worried about how much information is held on us by organisations and the government and took the gutsy step of trying to go off the map for a month. He hired a team of private investigators to track him down and the film follows this journey. As someone living in Britain it’s a terrifying watch, especially in scenes where David manages to get hold of all the data held on him by communications companies and online stores. The film itself is thrilling, funny and although scary, highly entertaining.
Erasing David is one of the best films I’ve seen so far this year, and you should definitely check it out.
There are details below the jump of where and when you can see it.
David Bond lives in one of the most intrusive surveillance states in the world. He decides to find out how much private companies and the government know about him by putting himself under surveillance and attempting to disappear – a decision that changes his life forever. Leaving his pregnant wife and young child behind, he is tracked across the database state on a chilling journey that forces him to contemplate the meaning of privacy – and the loss of it.
Once the bastion of freedom and civil liberties, the UK is now one of the most advanced surveillance societies in the world – ranked third after Russia and China. The average UK adult is now registered on over 700 databases and is caught daily on one of the 4 million CCTV cameras located on nearly every street corner in the country. Increasingly monitored, citizens are being turned into suspects. But if you’ve got nothing to hide, surely there’s nothing to fear?
When David receives a letter informing him that his daughter Ivy is among 25 million residents whose details have been lost by the government’s Child Benefit Office, he begins a journey that will see him hounded across Europe.
David soon discovers some alarming truths about what the government and private companies already know about ordinary citizens. He meets people who have been caught in the crossfire of the database state and have had their lives shattered.
As his concern grows, he makes a life-changing decision. He will leave his pregnant wife and child behind and put himself under surveillance for thirty days. The UK’s top Private Investigators are hired to discover everything they can about him and his family – and track David down as he attempts to vanish. Is it still possible to live a private, anonymous life in the UK? Or do the state and private companies already know too much about ordinary people?
Forced to contemplate the meaning of privacy – and the loss of it, David’s disturbing journey leaves him with no doubt that although he has nothing to hide, he certainly has something to fear…
Erasing David is a documentary about privacy, surveillance and the database state.
Erasing David will be available on on iTunes and Amazon VOD during SXSW and will then debut on cable VOD two weeks later via the wonderful people at Cinetic.
For those in the UK it’s on release in cinemas from April 29th and will be shown on Channel 4 on the 4th May.