Terms and Conditions May Apply suggests a doc prequel to Minority Report, as it charts a technological world in the nascent stages of becoming like the crime-prevention-through-prediction dystopia eerily depicted in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s prescient short story. But where the Precrime law-enforcement unit in Minority Report obtained their information from human oracles, the F.B.I., C.I.A., and NSA are actually gathering and analyzing data that was volunteered by us when we accepted the terms and conditions for using our favorite websites and forms of digital communication. Since 9/11, they’ve not so secretly been collecting this data in the name of national security, but, as this necessary primer on digital privacy reveals, the red flags that the computer systems identify don’t always turn out to be the criminals they were predicted to be, as when we meet a grade schooler who was questioned by the Secret Service about a post he made on Facebook that was actually expressing concern for the president’s safety.
Besides a scene from Minority Report, excerpts from other movies are sporadically employed to cleverly drive home certain ideas, such as a snippet from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban that’s used to highlight how tech companies are like “dementors” trying to suck our souls away. These jokey pop-cultural illustrations of such an unsettling topic work well to balance out the film’s overall ominous tone, one that paints, as in a clip from The Lives of Others, these secretive arms of the U.S. government to look more like the German Democratic Republic’s Stasi. And while the Patriot Act may have been a necessary infringement on our privacy for the sake of the nation’s security, Terms and Conditions May Apply suggests it also created a new business model around making personal information widely available. Although unmentioned in the film, Naomi Kline’s conspiratorial book The Shock Doctrine might as well have been a reference; it’s tempting to see the Patriot Act as another example of the controversial policies that governments manipulatively implement during times of crisis, when their citizens are distracted and incapable of objection.
Although many people are probably aware of the constitutional and moral issues tied to online privacy, Terms and Conditions May Apply encourages viewers to think more critically about the massive spying infrastructure being built underneath the seemingly free, benign social playgrounds that they digitally inhabit. Even if you’re not a terrorist, there’s still reason to be concerned about your activities online. The worried Sherry Turkle, Professor of Social Studies at MIT, notes how it’s healthy that people you’re in a relationship with don’t know everything about you. The film also points out that your digital history can be analyzed to target you with ads, reduce your credit limit, and determine your health insurance policy—and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If The Social Network’s glamorized depiction of Mark Zuckerberg as a scheming backstabber didn’t make you want to quit Facebook in 2010, the brave new world outlined in Terms and Conditions May Apply should, despite the fact that your data won’t actually be erased.