Who Will Track the Internet Trackers?

The documentary Do Not Track, a multi-part project on data privacy, is personalized to individual viewers based on their online behaviors.

Nigel Roddis/Reuters

It's a given that when you visit a website, that site is gathering information about you. Big Data knows you, and it knows you well. If you don't want to be tracked, you might as well log off.

Or you can at try to understand how much of your personal information if out there. That's the goal of Do Not Track, an interactive, "personalized" documentary unveiled this week at the Tribeca Film Festival's Storyscapes exhibit.

The documentary, created and directed by Brett Gaylor, the former senior director of Mozilla Webmaker Initiative, encourages viewer input. It's presented as a series of episodes—the first two are already available, with the next ones premiering every other week—that, if you let it, will track your Internet practices to show you exactly how the modern web follows almost every one of your digital movements.

That's where the "personalized" part of the project comes in: When you open an episode of the documentary, you're greeted by a narrator. The narrator you have depends on where you're watching the film; as a viewer in the United States, I see Gaylor himself walk me through how much I offer the web. And going forward, every tidbit you share (the project figures out before you start where you're located and what service you're using to view the episode) customizes the episode to react to you. When I begin, I'm prompted to share the news site I visit most often (which would be TheAtlantic.com, natch), as well as the site I visit to procrastinate (which would be... never mind). From there, the episode I'm watching pauses to take me through the trackers on those sites and how they connect to on another and build my data profile. Here's the first data web I see:

Screenshot of Do Not Track

And while the documentary is warning you about how much data you openly give the Internet, it's also tracking you. "We wanted to highlight the irony of that, but we also wanted to make it really transparent," Gaylor told me, before pointing out that viewers have the option to not be tracked by the project. "We wanted to make it personalized, to make it feel like a movie that you're watching, but that's unlike any documentary you've watched in the theater or on TV."

It all makes for an unusual viewing experience. There's a dynamic element to watching the series, and it's not just the interactivity: As the film moves along, the screen shows collages of GIFs (these change depending on when you watch) coupled with a cacophonous soundtrack that gives it all a frenetic energy—just like the web itself. "What we're trying to do is situate the viewer in their everyday Internet experience, and in 2015, that includes a lot of GIFs," Gaylor said, laughing. "We wanted it to be fun and we wanted it to be accessible."

In other words, when the documentary does slow down and show you how people are tracked online, it's like pulling back the curtain on the usual frenzied feeling of being online. And after it ends, you can look through links to information about privacy and engage in comments, making the project more informative than it is ominous.

That's the balance the Storyscapes exhibit curator Ingrid Kopp told me she wanted to strike in the projects she featured. "It's not like technology solves everything, or technology is really bad," she said. "It's this way of thinking about tech as something that's with us now always, but that we need to think about more critically and in a more nuanced way."