Sunday, May 10, 2015

SFIFF58: Deep Web

Last Monday night I attended the San Francisco International Film Festival screening of Deep Web, Alex Winter's up-to-the minute documentary about Silk Road, the online black market, & Robert Ulbricht, the man recently convicted of being its founder & owner. Mr. Winter uses the story of Silk Road to raise issues of anonymity, privacy, freedom from government coercion & the war on drugs. Interview subjects include journalists, cryptography experts, lawyers, law enforcement, anarchist hackers & former Silk Road administrators. It's hard to miss the poster of Ed Snowden in the office of WIRED journalist Andy Greenberg or to disagree when EFF lawyer Cindy Cohn asserts that "An observed life is not a free life."

Deep Web is also a work of advocacy. It portrays Mr. Ulbricht as a benign & idealistic young man who wants to make the world a better place. Though he is not interviewed for the film, we get to know him through family photos, personal videos & testimonials from his family, friends & colleagues. The movie strongly hints that the government violated Mr. Ulbricht's 4th Amendment rights. The festival audience laughed when security expert Nicholas Weaver characterized the government's account of how it found the Silk Road servers as "vaguely connected to the truth."

Following the screening, journalist Susie Cagle showed slides of her illustrated coverage of Ulbricht's trial, which she described as "absurd theater." Her account suggests that the judge's ignorance of technical issues played to the advantage of the prosecution. Festival programmer Sean Uyehara then led a discussion with director Mr. Winter, EFF lawyer Ms. Cohn & Ms. Cagle. We learned that Mr. Winter destroyed all his source material as soon as the film was finished, so that there could be nothing to subpoena. The quotable Ms. Cohn asserted that this is a golden age for government surveillance & that it is hard to get a fair trial when the government won't give away how it finds out things.

The screening was full, & I sat in the balcony of the Kabuki Cinema, where a lot of people were eating. Keanu Reeves was in attendance, though I did not spot him. He narrates the film, which includes a bit of computer animation recalling The Matrix. He was also reported to be at Dosa across the street afterward.

§ Deep Web
Director: Alex Winter
2015, USA, 91 mins.

§ 58th San Francisco International Film Festival
May 4, 2015   9:00 p.m.   Sundance Kabuki Cinemas
May 6, 2015   2:00 p.m.   Sundance Kabuki Cinemas

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