Film Shot Spy-Camera Style

With more than 30 million surveillance cameras in this country, the average American is caught on tape more than 200 times a day: on the street, at the ATM, in department stores, even in public restrooms. Yet the notion that we're being watched—at all times—has yet to resonate in the public perception. Most people don't know that hidden cameras are legal in dressing rooms and bathrooms in most states, nor that workplaces can get special permission to install them without ever having to reveal their whereabouts. In some places store employees can even make reels from security cameras and post them on YouTube.

That's where "Look," the acclaimed new film by writer-director Adam Rifkin, comes in—and it's likely to shock you. Shot entirely through the point of view of security cameras (and co-produced by Barry Schuler, the former head of AOL), the film is executed in the style of actual spy-cam footage strung together but is actually a fictional tale aimed at giving viewers a glimpse of just how public our private lives have become. Its characters run the gamut: a high-school English teacher who has an affair with an underage student, a gas station clerk with high hopes for a musical career, a department store manager who uses his warehouse as a secret sex refuge. Yet all are connected by surveillance footage that, in the end, holds the key to their survival—or demise. The film took home the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Cine Vegas Film Festival and will debut in New York and Los Angeles in December. Schuler spoke with NEWSWEEK's Jessica Bennett. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Describe the social context that inspired you to make this film.
Barry Schuler:
The last 10 years have brought a sort of perfect storm for what we're seeing today: wide adoption of the Internet, technological advancements that make accessing the Internet easy and a sense of paranoia that's been created by the aftermath of 9/11. We're being captured on camera nearly 200 times a day in the United States, and those images are being digitized and archived forever, with highly advanced face-recognition technology. This technology is racing forward without any attention, and nobody's stopping to ask questions about its propriety.

What should we be asking?
Is it OK to have surveillance in bathrooms and dressing rooms? And if it is, shouldn't there be some kind of disclosure that it's happening? What is slander and liability in this new world? Say I'm Vanessa Anne Hudgens. I'm a kid; I'm a celebrity. I take a fairly innocent picture in today's world, send it to my boyfriend, and the next thing I know my naked photo is being sent across the Web at light speed. Now not only am I embarrassed but my career is in jeopardy. Is that OK? Is it really fair game when someone does something they think is in privacy for it to be spattered across the media?

But how do you separate what's privacy and what's security?
It's hard to figure out what's right and what's wrong in many of these cases. But it's so easy now to set up these networks of cameras, and you can keep the data forever and ever and can find specific frames of specific people all with the click of a mouse. And that's when we need to be asking about the statute of limitations on a clickstream. How long should operators be able to keep that stuff? What laws should be required to access this stuff for anything but something criminal? If we allow cameras in New York City as a method of regulating a commuter tax, what else can that information be used for? If I happen to be cheating on my wife and get snapped in a picture with another woman, is that data going to be available to my wife if she tries to divorce me?

You did a lot of research for this film. What's the most shocking thing you learned?
In most states in this country you can walk into a department store and be recorded on video while you're undressing. Many of the monitors of those recordings are kids. Kids get goofy. They're using joysticks to follow around the hottest girls, zooming in on privates.

Wow. What sorts of things were caught on tape while you were heading AOL?
Mostly just people acting like people when they don't believe they're being observed. Some would have sex during the day in places they clearly weren't supposed to be having sex. There were people doing drugs. But this stuff is pretty common at large organizations everywhere.

If surveillance is such a breach of privacy, why does the broad public support it?
People see the lens, and I think it creates a sense of security. But I don't believe there's any real understanding of the power of this technology: how it can be archived and searched, and how loose the rules are for who gets to access it.

Give me an example of how that information could be used.
We're moving into a presidential election. I hope none of the candidates have been visiting porn sites, because the fact of the matter is that some kid somewhere at Google or one of those companies could be paid off by an operative and go digging for dirt. I wouldn't be surprised if over the course of the next year we see something like that.

Do people need to be more careful what they do online?
I think young people are seduced by the citizen media notion of the Internet: that everyone can have their minutes of fame. But they're also putting themselves out there—forever.