How do you make mass surveillance relevant to the average person? Well, you could make the issue all about dick pics, like John Oliver did last week. Do Not Track, a new documentary web series premiering online today, is taking a less carnal approach: the site scoops up your data and uses it to give every episode a terrifyingly personal touch.
Do Not Track aims to demystify the opaque world of data collection. Websites often use a number—sometimes dozens—of third party trackers on every page to pilfer your data and either use it for advertising purposes or sell it to the people who can. Most of the time, you're probably blissfully unaware of this. And even if you knew, would you change how you use the web?
After all, our data is merely part of the bargain we struck to use many of our favourite sites in the first place. To use the internet is to assume that someone, somewhere, somehow, is watching.
Brett Gaylor, Do Not Track's Canadian creator and director—he's also the head of Mozilla's open source code library project, Popcorn.js —wants to turn this assumption on its head with a documentary about data tracking that actually uses your information, voluntarily provided or not, to illustrate how much unknown parties, from advertisers to governments, can learn about you online.
"We want a user to not just understand what's happening generally, to have a general understanding of how it works, but how it's happening for them—that unique viewer," Gaylor said. "What better way to illustrate these concepts than to actually do it in real time with the user?"
In the first episode, before the series' site even asks you to give up any information, the narrator uses routinely transmitted data to seamlessly address the viewer and tell them what country they're in, what city they live in and what the weather's like today, as well as what kind of computer they're using. The experience is a little shocking, even if you understand what's happening in theory.
"Everybody has a sense that there is data collection going on, but it's hard to have the vocabulary around it," Gaylor said. "People might get a glimpse of how Facebook ads work, or they might hear about government programs like PRISM in the US or Bill C-51 in Canada, but the word that's used to describe them is 'creepy.' We want to say, actually, let's dig into this and have a more extended conversation."
The experience only becomes more chilling as the site asks you for more and more information, like what sites you regularly visit, to illustrate its points about how your data is collected and used in ways that reach way beyond merely "creepy."
The idea is for the series to be fun and approachable. While there is a lot of technical talk, it's never overwhelming, and always couched in everyday language and scenarios. But the reality is that the issue of digital data collection and surveillance is not a simple one. That's why Gaylor also plans on releasing an email newsletter along with every episode containing research papers, articles, and other educational material relating to what was discussed in the preceding episode.
The goal, Gaylor told me, is to raise awareness about data, and promote the idea that data is valuable; it's not something to be given away so thoughtlessly. If someone begins to think a little more critically about where their information is going, they may take security measures like using encryption.
And, in case you were wondering, Do Not Track aims to be a responsible data steward itself. The team is committing to keep your data away from advertisers, and after the series' broadcast rights expire in three years, every email address collected during the program's run will be destroyed.
"We'll probably have a big party and ritually burn the databases," Gaylor joked. "But that's important—when you give your information, that you're not giving it over in perpetuity, for someone to do whatever they want with it."