Interview: Erasing David

Richard Bodsworth 19 April, 2010 0

In 2007, 25 million UK residents received a letter informing them that their details had been lost by the government’s Child Benefit Office, documentary filmmaker David Bond was one of them.

In response, Bond would embark on a month long mission across Europe on the run from private detectives hired to hunt him down. As the films’ tagline says and Bond would later discover, If you have nothing to hide, is there nothing to fear?

As Erasing David prepares for an exclusive Picturehouse screening and satellite Q&A across the UK later this month, ReelScotland got the chance to speak to David Bond. Under discussion were the film itself as well as what kind of information the government and corporations hold on us and the dangers of social networking sites

When I got the letter it really struck home.

An astonishing fact is revealed at the beginning of Erasing David: the UK has the third most intrusive surveillance in the world behind only Russia and Japan. It sounds like scaremongering,” says Bond, “but that research was done by the London School of Economics and a group called Privacy International and they are world respected academics. The way they measure it is through a whole range of things like CCTV, databases and all the rest of them. A lot of countries do these things but we’re the only one doing all of it.

When the 25 million personal records were lost in the post after an official at HM Revenue & Customs sent them to the National Audit Office in London, the threat of mass identity fraud and theft from personal bank accounts was huge as the data included dates of birth, addresses, National Insurance numbers and bank account details. Gordon Brown apologised for the inconvenience, but this was not enough for David Bond and he decided to delve deeper into what information the government actually hold on citizens of the state.

I’d always been very interested in the division of the individual of the state and what our rights are. When I got this letter saying [they] had misplaced all of [my] daughter’s data, it spurred me on and got me thinking this will make a good film. After that we built the structure of it, the chase. We put those two things together and it was immediately obvious that it should be me doing it. I couldn’t imagine asking anyone else going through the experiment. I just felt really strongly about it. There is something weird and paradoxical though because throughout the film I’m saying ‘I want to be private, I want to be private’ and there’s all my data on show!

The basis for the film is an experiment. How far can a person run without being discovered if they are under constant surveillance? Private investigation firm Cerberus Investigation were assigned the task of hunting Bond down by any means necessary.

The hunters and the hunted: David Bond and investigators from Cerberus Investigation

They do a lot of high end stuff, corporate investigation and Ash, my producer liked that they were at the higher end of the market. Plus they were up for it straight away. We asked ‘would you like to chase someone for a month and we’ll film it? If you catch him it’s great publicity for you, if not you will look like idiots.’ But because they were so confident that they would catch me, we thought ‘these are the guys’.

The film is timely following the recent, and highly controversial, digital economy bill which was rushed through The House of Commons only earlier this month.

The subject matter, to me anyway, is a big issue at the moment in politics. It’s all been washed aside by the economy of late but it’s really, really important and it felt we were making a film about a subject area we really care about as well. Now that I’ve been sensitised to the issue, I notice there’s a piece of news every other day, or at least every week that is another example of it slowly encroaching day to day into our lives. There was a story in the USA the other day. Over there a lot people are routinely selling and swapping data amongst each other on kind of personal data exchanges so our data is basically traded now like a commodity.

Bond’s investigations take a more interesting turn when he discovers the amount of personal information stored by corporations. If you take everything the government knows about you and put it in one pile, and everything corporations know about you in another, the corporation pile would be a hell of a lot higher, probably ten times bigger and it contains a lot of very personal stuff too. It could be stuff that doesn’t seem that important when you first think about it but when you imagine it in combination, like if Tesco talked to Facebook and they talked together with Amazon and you brought all of that stuff together, that would be a really detailed picture of your life.

Social networking sites are massive. Facebook alone has hundreds of millions of users updating daily. As controversy continues to rumble regarding how much control the company has over the privacy of its customers data, users continue to display highly personal information online including their email addresses, dates of birth and home addresses.

Erasing David will screen at Picturehouse cinemas 29 April

What’s really weird is we are volunteering that stuff! No one is holding a gun to our heads. It’s not a government thing and it’s not like you’re going to get money off anything. I don’t use Facebook anymore as a result. They didn’t put it in the film, but they set up a Facebook account called Phileas Fogg and asked my friends to join and tried to get information from them about me through it, so that gave me the heebie-jeebies about Facebook.

“But to be honest what’s really put me off it is this feeling there is a contract you enter into. You never notice it, but basically the contract is, ‘we give you a free web app, which is quite handy and a lot of people are a member of, and in return you are going to give us tons and tons of personal data about yourself and we are going to make money out of that.’ They never say that in those terms and I think if they did people would think twice.

There are more serious things to consider on Facebook than simply ‘liking’ a friend’s status update, as today employers are both hiring and firing based upon the happenings on social networking sites.

“It’s that thing though, if you’re an anarchist at one time in your life and you’ve got some anarchist friends. If it’s just a phase, some political phase or whatever that we all go through, once you’ve gone through that and it’s been on Facebook you can’t delete that. In some nightmarish future world when the state wants to identify who was involved or interested in anarchism it’s all there and you might not want that.

“Some of the smart graduates trying to get jobs, they have a Facebook page that they know employers will look at it and put stuff like ‘I helped a little old lady across the road today’. But then they use other social networking sites to discuss their drug taking” laughs David.

The conditions of the experiment meant the investigators could use anything at their disposal to find Bond, whether it be through Facebook or digging up any personal details and records they could source. I think that’s probably one of the worst moments for me, it was the unbelievable sinking feeling that they had all these parts of me up on that wall; facts, birth certificates, marriage certificates. In combination I felt deeply uncomfortable about what I had allowed them to do.”

“I’ve gotten into the habit of separating work and spam, but you have to take ownership of your identity.”

As the film progresses, it is evident that the chase is taking its toll on Bond. One scene where he hides out deep in the Welsh countryside is possibly him at the height of his paranoia.

I’m better now because I feel much more in control. I did go through a real stage where I thought I’d lost control and I didn’t know where any of this [information] was but through knowing more about it, I feel more empowered and that’s a really good feeling. I’m not paranoid anymore but I’m justifiably scared, but that is good and it makes me question these sort of transactions.

“Like the other day I was in this National Trust place and they were asking for my name and stuff so they ‘could claim back the tax’, but I wanted to know why they really want it. I’ll give them extra money if that’s what they really want, and it came out it would be used as marketing and they might write to me. It’s quite interesting when you start questioning these data transactions considering how often they happen and how little you used to think about them.

“After seeing it, if you do one thing that makes you a little more careful I’d be very happy.”

With so much information held by the government and corporations along with constant CCTV surveillance it could be easy for citizens to live in a constant state of fear and paranoia.  “I don’t want that to happen, that’s silly, but I don’t think we can trust politicians to do anything about it. The reason for that is when they are in position they talk a great talk, ‘oh this is atrocious what the government has done’, but as soon as they get into power, they’ve got these powers to surveil people and it’s too tempting to hold on to that. So I don’t trust politicians to do anything about it and I certainly don’t trust corporations to do anything about it, so it is down to us to do something about it.

F”or example I’ve opted out of the NHS database,” notes Bond, “It’s a minor thing but I really think everyone should do that. The more I look into it I think it’s a leaky, pretty useless system. A common mistake people make is they trust the system, they think the system is all powerful, but as the London School of Economics professor said, ‘the one thing all systems have in common is that they fail.”

Erasing David opens  29 April exclusively to Picturehouse cinemas, with a special screening that night followed by a satellite Q&A starting at 20:30.

Taking part in the debate are David Davis, Shami Chakrabarti, Michael Nyman, Will Self and David Bond. Questions for debate can be submitted via text message from any venue.

Tickets for the Cameo, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, Belmont screenings are available through their respective websites.

If you are unable to attend, the film will screen on More4 on the 4 May.