The Deliverator – Wannabee

So open minded, my thoughts fell out…

At SIFF, The Movies Watch You!

Posted by Deliverator on June 6th, 2013

I’ve been attending the Seattle International Film Festival for close to a decade. Recently, an issue which affects all festival attendees came to light and I feel an obligation to document it here, as SIFF has said little publicly on the matter.

This year, SIFF has included a uniquely identifying barcode on all passes and tickets and mandated that these barcodes must be scanned for entry. When asked about the barcodes and their purpose at press screenings prior to the start of the festival, members were told that the barcodes were for headcount and validation purposes only and that no data was being collected. It quickly became apparent through the My SIFF feature on the SIFF website that this was not the case. A permanent record of the screening attendance of every pass-holder was being created and stored. A heated debated quickly emerged on the passholder mailing list, called Fool Serious. Some passholders liked the idea of being able to track what films they had seen, but many expressed grave concerns about their movie attendance being tracked and to ill defined purpose. I found the situation extremely troubling, both due to the denials that this was taking place, but also due to the lack of any statement of how this data was being stored and used both directly by SIFF and potentially by third parties. At the time, SIFF had NO stated privacy policy, which is exceptional for an organization of its size in this era.

There was no notice that data collection would be taking place as a condition of entry at the time I purchased my pass or at the time the pass was issued to me and the terms printed on the pass itself don’t seem to require it as a condition of entry. I made multiple attempts to engage SIFF leadership, both via email and also via SIFF board members. I sent no fewer than 4 emails to a half dozen top SIFF employees asking that my pass be refunded or that I be allowed entry without being tracked, as I considered the tracking to be a term of execution added after purchase and issuance of the pass. I was told by sources within SIFF that the issue had been brought before directors (specifically named to me) and they had dismissed the issue rather cavalierly and hoped it would go away. SIFF finally responded (minimally, in a way that said next to nothing) almost two weeks after the beginning of the furor and made claims to have not heard of the issue prior to then, which I believe to be untrue.

I was finally contacted by SIFF’s managing director Mary Bacarella and Carl Spence and after a half hour phone conversation was offered to exchange my pass for 50 vouchers that I was assured would be issued anonymously. At no time was I offered the refund I had requested or entry without scanning. I feel I was forced into giving up the significant benefits of a pass including attendance at press screening, priority entry and seating and unlimited attendance, but didn’t feel they were willing to offer more. When I attempted to “cash in” my anonymous vouchers, I was asked repeatedly for my name and had to spend close to 10 minutes explaining that I didn’t want to provide my name. I asked why they needed my name and was told it was only to notify me of venue changes and the like. When I asked if the data was being used for any other purpose, I was told no. I repeated that I wanted to exchange them anonymously and had been given permission to do so by SIFF’s directors and the volunteer finally relented after I handed him Mary Bacarella’s business card and told him to take it up with her.

I’m willing to share many types of data. I don’t really care that my grocery store knows what sort of peanut butter I like. I care a great deal however about having my viewing habits, web browsing habits, reading habits, etc. logged in a uniquely identifying way. Unlike inconsequential data such as peanut butter preferences, what we listen to, read and watch tells people a great deal about who we are as individuals. Such data can also be misconstrued in a variety of ways that have real and unanticipated consequences. While many young people today are pretty blithe about what and with whom they share their information, I’ve seen the repercussions of over-sharing, identity theft, etc. first hand as part of my work and as such, try to maintain a high degree of separation between my public and private lives. I can imagine a lot of ways in which information such as this could be used in ways I would not approve, but it is the unanticipated ramifications that I find scariest.

SIFF finally posted a privacy policy to its website, and I find the terms and conditions layed out in it to be deeply suspect. SIFF does little to draw attention to this document and has made no public press statement on the matter. One provision in the privacy policy allows for members to request that their tracking data be deleted. I made such a request and shortly thereafter found that my SIFF account AND MEMBERSHIP had been outright deleted. When I’ve presented my membership card (which has a clear “valid until” date printed on it) at SIFF venues, I’ve been told they can find no record of my membership and have been further denied the benefits of the membership for which I paid. This whole situation has increasingly grown to resemble a play by either Kafka or Heller and I find this situation deeply ironic given that this year’s festival contains a film called “Terms & Conditions.”

Attendees should be told upfront in a forthright way by SIFF that they are being tracked and not have that data hidden in 6 pt type. They should be given the chance to opt-out in a meaningful and non-punitive way. SIFF has thus far failed utterly to do so. I hope that SIFF will reconsider their position and work with the people who have raised objections to develop a policy that better addresses the concerns raised by many of their most supportive members.