Many of us have a love/hate relationship with the role technology plays in our lives. We adore our mobile devices, our favorite apps, and websites, and rely on the convenience that tech-enabled personalization brings into our lives. Ideally, smart consumers also approach each new innovation with a healthy dose of wariness.
But do we really know what our interactions with our phones, our tablets, even our television and game systems say about us? More importantly, do we know with whom are they sharing that information?
Showtime’s eight-part documentary series Dark Net, airing at 11 p.m. Thursdays, examines some of these questions without delivering definitive answers, or at least not within the first three half-hours offered for review. It does, however, raise a lot of questions – many of them about what its central message is, whether it makes that point effectively, and what its filmmakers really want to say.
The series title itself is provocative, as are the episodic names: Dark Net opens with “Crush,” which profiles a BDSM relationship between Kristie M., a woman from Washington state, and her submissive, maintained entirely over the Internet and by using mobile phone tracking technology. We also meet a victim of revenge porn and a single man in Japan who’s madly in love with an avatar on a dating simulator.
Episode two, “Upgrade,” looks at a Swedish woman who joyfully agrees to having an RFID chip implanted subcutaneously, as well as a filmmaker who replaces the eye he lost with a camera, and a “the world’s most connected man,” who uses hundreds of life-tracking apps and system to keep a running log of his life.
“The way I look at the deep web, or the deep Internet, it’s like the other consciousness of human behavior,” explains series creator Mati Kochavi, who also founded the tech and media company that developed and produced the series, Vocativ.
He goes on to add, “Are we mature enough to understand how to use technology the right way? Do we get what it really means? Are we protecting ourselves enough? I’m not sure. Actually, I’m sure we’re not.”
In a couple of years, Vocativ has created a sense of awe and mild terror within the journalism world. Its business model is a smart one: Mining the Internet using the same kind of data-collection software traditionally used by governments and corporations, Vocativ’s goal is to find news stories within the deep web and break them before traditional news outlets, or even the BuzzFeeds and Vices of the world, are aware of their existence.
Not surprisingly, a year following its founding, MSNBC struck a partnership with Vocativ to create video segments for it short-lived news series Ronan Farrow Daily.
During a recent conversation at a Showtime event in Pasadena, Calif., Kochavi revealed his fascination with what he sees as the latest chapter in our tech evolution, “the Internet of Things.”
“We are plugging ourselves into machines and exposing ourselves even to a higher level, in every day, every minute, every second,” he says. “The level of data about us is just growing, and we accept it.”
“So actually, a third party can know about you much more than you’re going to understand about you,” he continues. “…If I’m going to be connected to devices that tell me how much do I walk or how much do I eat, what’s my blood pressure …all those things, eventually someone might know something about me even before I know it about me, because he uses data, and he knows what that data means. They’re going to know that you’re becoming sick before you’re even going to be able know that you’re becoming sick.”
Before launching Vocativ in 2013, Kochavi, an Israeli-born billionaire, was better known as the founder, chairman and CEO of AGT International. The Switzerland-based AGT, launched in 2007, is a global security firm that uses technology to gather information and perform analysis for governments and corporations.
It’s also a leading supplier of surveillance and security tech to governments in the Middle East including the United Arab Emirates, as well as China, Singapore, the Netherlands, and others.
Closer to home, Kochavi has also served as the chairman of 3i-MIND, cited in a 2013 Rolling Stone article as one of the firms that offered its spying tech to police departments, including the ability to “try to identify both online and physical world activist leaders and collect information about them.” That quote was taken from a 3i-MIND webpage linked within the Rolling Stone story, a page which no longer exists.
All of which is to say, if any man is aware of the possibility and peril lurking within the deep web, it’s Kochavi. Thus, it’s curious that, within the first two episodes of Dark Net, viewers are presented with stories that either are all-too-familiar or glimpse at next-level tech with something of a gee-whiz approach, with just a sprinkling of warning about the implications of data mining.
In “Crush,” while her submissive is jogging to fulfill one of Kristie’s commands, small fact bubbles pop up on the screen letting us know what percentage of apps ask for personal information, such as access to browsing history, phone, GPS location, usernames and passwords.
Dark Net’s narrator ominously likens our consent to these requests, to the contract that dominatrix Kristie has with her submissive. “Every click has consequences,” her voice warns in “Exploit.”
South Park made pretty much the same point in 2011, albeit more perversely (which is saying something) with its “HUMANCENTiPAD” episode.
Then again, one of the most shocking moments in “Crush” comes at the end of the revenge porn victim’s story. Following a harrowing account of her ex-boyfriend posting hundreds of nude pictures without her consent, sharing her address under false social media profiles and inviting strangers to come to her house and assault her, the woman has moved to a small town in Pennsylvania. She’s in a new relationship, and says she’s in love.
After all that, she says, “I never tell people ‘don’t send the pictures,’ because you should be able to trust someone, and be able to have that intimacy where you can send a picture and you don’t have to worry that it’s going to show up on 2,000 websites.”
“I don’t think that people really understand how technology is affecting their lives. They get it, but they don’t understand it,” Kochavi says. “Think about it…There’s so much data about each one of us. Do we know where it is? Do we know if there’s a problem? Do we know who’s keeping the information about us? These are really interesting questions.”
Whether Dark Net is successful in conveying that idea is a matter of perspective. If, as I did, one looks at the title and hopes that the series will explore largely unknown factors lurking in the shadier corners of the web, she will be disappointed.
In fairness, one of the vilest aspects of the dark web, the proliferation of child pornography, is examined in “Exploit,” the third episode. It’s also the first time the series mentions the existence of one of the main gateways into the deep web: Tor, also known as the Onion Router.
But if you’re coming to Dark Net in search of the type of late-night content in which premium cable specializes – titillating, unusual, and perhaps bit squeamish – you may be perfectly satisfied.
Adopting innovation comes with risk as well as reward. That’s part of the deal with evolution, and it seems to be the case Dark Net is trying to make. And like many strange tales born on the web, a person may be left with a lot more questions about that point – and, perhaps, the motivation for making the series itself — than answers.
Kochavi is quick to point out that this is Vocativ’s first long-form television outing. It has two more television projects in development, and he says he welcomes any debate this series and others inspire.
“We do want people to raise questions about it and say, ‘What does it mean?’” he says. “And the next one it going to be, in my view, much harsher and much more hitting you in the stomach.”