Posted by: Paul | May 22, 2010

Erasing David

More4 screened this intriguing documentary a few weeks ago and I’ve finally got around to reviewing it.

After the loss of 2 discs containing the names and addresses of everyone on the UK Child Benefit register in 2007, the UK government sent a letter of apology to the millions of people affected. With identity fraud and damaging ‘false positives’ on the increase (where people are incorrectly identified or associated with something undesireable simply through similarities in their data to that of another person), when filmmaker David Bond received his copy of the letter relating to his daughter’s details being lost on these discs he decided to start a quest to find out how much the state and private companies knew about him – and whether there was anything he could do about it.

The results were staggering. Bond sent off over 80 ‘subject information requests’, by which under the Data Protection Act, government bodies and companies are legally obliged to share with you a copy of any of the data they hold on file about you. This was a massively wide range of organisations, from the Passport Office to (his Amazon file was particularly startling, an inch thick and contained not only his own records, but name and address details for everyone he had ever sent a gift to).

With this ‘database state’ we now live in, Bond began to wonder if the amount of information held about people made it possible for anyone to find out anything about anyone else, using just one piece of information – their name. To find out, he decided to disappear. He set out to leave his life behind (including his heavily pregnant wife and their little girl), and hired two private investigators, giving them just 30 days to track him down.

For a documentary, this was absolutely thrilling and chilling at the same time. By turns funny and engaging (Bond is incredibly charismatic and you can’t help but feel claustrophobic as his paranoia gradually takes over), and also eye-opening and really quite scary. If you hadn’t really thought about how your information is stored and could work against you, you owe it to yourself to watch this. Bond’s attempts to hide are intercut with talking heads from experts in the field (including Tory MP David Davies), and also his own interviews with people whose lives have been turned upside down purely through misuse of their personal details. It’s quite thought provoking, and if it changes one thing in your behaviour it should be ‘be very careful what you throw in the bin!’

If I have one complaint it’s that some sequences felt a bit staged. Bond’s attempts to avoid detection were clearly for real but I couldn’t shake the feeling that at times he was playing to the camera. No particular harm in it, it just made the situations feel a bit contrived in places which detracted from the overall impact. Even so it was incredibly compelling TV. You can, and should, watch it here.


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