Erasing David

Time magazine

Wednesday, Mar. 31, 2010

Trying to Escape the Surveillance State

By Dan Fletcher

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.

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