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#WhoRunsTheBots Film Review: Anon

Who runs the bots that should protect us? Who runs the system? And who checks the people who run that system?

This is a question I've been asking myself for a year, since my battle against online targeted harassment started, after I spoke out in January 2017 about the man who raped me. I did it due to blackmail and threats to protect myself and break his power over me. Soon, I found out, the companies and systems put in place to help me protect myself online, didn't really protect me at all.

Due to it, I started a project called #whorunsthebots. Soon, the project will be revealed. For this project I'm researching social media, digital systems, technology, and online violence.

Part of the research consists of reviewing futuristic films concerning privacy and anonymity to get more ideas about what kind of futuristic madness we could expect regarding online violence. Netflix just released the film Anon, a film covering these topics, so I decided to review it from an activistic point of view, as well as a sci-fi film lover's point of view.

Anon.

Sal Frieland is a detective in a world with no privacy or anonymity; where everyone's lives are transparent, traceable, and recorded by the authorities; where crime almost ceases to exist. But in trying to solve a series of murders, Frieland stumbles on a young woman known only as the Girl.

Anon is a Neo-noir (a modern rendition of Film Noir) sci-fi thriller, happening in a future where privacy is an illusion and anonymity is seen as a threat.

Film Noir

A style or genre of cinematographic film marked by a mood of pessimism, fatalism, and menace. The term was originally applied (by a group of French critics) to American thriller or detective films made in the period 1944–54 and to the work of directors such as Orson Welles, Fritz Lang, and Billy Wilder.

Through augmented reality, the lives of the people inside the world of the film Anon, are made easier and seem more protected.

Augmented reality

A technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on a user's view of the real world, thus providing a composite view.

Sal Frieland (Clive Owen), a mourning detective who lost his son, is presented with a case where the killer can't be traced because he/she seems to 'disappear' from people's minds. He finds out there are hackers who are able to penetrate and change the system created to protect the civilians in this world.

Hackers are paid to change and replace memories of people, which makes it more difficult to solve crimes. When detective Frieland goes undercover to find the female hacker (Amanda Seyfried) he believes is behind this, who seems to be also killing her client now, he finds out that hackers have become even more dangerous than he suspected.

Amanda Seyfried as 'The Girl' in Anon (2018).

SPOILER WARNING.

Anon explores a world that heavily relies on digital systems to protect us. The 'hero' tries to solve problems inside this system. To uncover who's abusing the system, the hero rents a hooker and buys cocaine to create memories to find the hacker who can delete them. 

The film Anon shows how those fighting to protect others, sometimes go to drastic measures to do this. One might argue that the detective is a sad man who doesn't mind going to hookers and surely wouldn't mind a sniff or two, but still, the film clearly shows how people are willing to push their own boundaries, sometimes in toxic ways, in the name of justice.

 Krystal the escort is used by the detective to help create a memory he wants to have erased, to find the hacker he is looking for.

Krystal the escort is used by the detective to help create a memory he wants to have erased, to find the hacker he is looking for.

Not to mention, involving other people in dangerous police work (the prostitute in this case), when the suspect is a notorious hacker suspected of killing those who have memories of her, is questionable. Obviously a prostitute is picked for this (because it's okay to involve prostitutes in dangerous situations apparently?). It's an obvious memory you'd want to hide from others, specifically a girlfriend.

The detective could have come up with a number of memories he wanted to create and have deleted, to get in touch with the hacker, but nothing special was picked by the writers. Just two things: prostitutes and drugs. Cocaine, specifically, fitting the detective's new identity: a banker. 

If there's any remarks I have about the story, then it's that these memories and the persona they picked were pretty easy. If I was an intelligent female hacker making money online by deleting memories and a banker tried to get in touch with me to have these two specific memories deleted.. My first thought would be: that's a cop. I would be suspicious. However, we are in for a plot-twist in the end. So it doesn't really matter..

A memory gets erased in Anon (2018).

Also, overall, it doesn't affect the movie much. Given the film-noir style, the prostitute and drugs topic fit the movie again, so it's something you can forgive easily.

The female hacker does find out the detective is a policeman eventually, after they have sex together. Then, she starts showing him her true powers: how she can alter his reality and drive him insane and even frame him for murder, so he gets thrown off the case.

In this part of the film, we see the dystopian world we could be facing in the future, if we were ever to fully link our bodies and brain to augmented reality completely, and shit would hit the fan. Imagine someone being able to see everything what you're seeing, who can control what you see from a distance and knows your fears. Or, can just simply test your fears. See what triggers you. What will drive you mad. Like a game. Are it thousands of rats, crawling towards you over the floor that scare you? No? How about your building being on fire suddenly? Still a no?

In that case, how about we delete all the good memories of your child who passed away so you can no longer replay them? Oh, and on top of that, we'll keep showing you the bad memories: how you didn't watch your son for 1 second, and a moment later, he was dead. 

Anon shows us what mental torture can look like in the future and how malicious people could use technology for devious means to target people. How many people would die by suicide if they were targeted like this in the future, for days, weeks, maybe months or years? And how would you prove it to other people, when a hacker can erase and replace your memories of it so you can't prove it with the recorded device inside your eye you've been using all your life? We'd be back at the start: when we can't trust technology anymore, we'd have to start trusting people again, which we're already not very great at right now. Many victims who testify in court against their abusers, are not taken serious, without obvious evidence of the abuse.

A world like Anon could happen. Trolls are already living in our world, finding joy in targeting people online. What if in 2150, they wouldn't have to spam your social media accounts anymore, but could directly spam your brain and change your reality? It's a terrifying thought.

No surprise that the majority of the police force feels very strongly about anonymity in the film: they think it's dangerous. They feel they need to know everything about everyone, so when a crime happens, they can instantly find the criminals involves.

In a nice little plot-twist (like I mentioned before), which shows how flawed the system is by default, our hacker-lady who lives an analogue lifestyle mainly, has a few thoughts on this.

'The Girl' is an 'error' inside the system.

Quote The Girl: "You invade my privacy, it's nothing. I try to get it back, it's a crime."

Quote The Girl: "It's not that I have something to hide. I have nothing I want you to see."

In an earlier conversation between the detective and The Girl, when he asks her if she would hide memories to protect killers, she says that it would depend on who the killer was.

Plot Spoiler

Throughout the film, we learn The Girl actually has a moral code. By the end, we find out that someone inside the police force, a hacker who penetrated the force, was trying to frame her for the murders of her clients. Specifically the clients who slept with her. This other hacker - a policeman - seems to have a perverted obsession with The Girl, and doesn't want others the 'have her'.

Soon the police force realises the system doesn't work anymore and how they have been fooled. Recommendations about the policeman (the hacker) apparently had been fabricated too, which is how he was able to find his way into the force. All due to the technology the force was using.

While Anon revolves around a female abuser in the beginning, in the end we get a male abuser to show the other side of the coin: a man who killed dozens of people because he was obsessed with a woman, a woman who in return tortured a detective who was chasing her because he thought she did it.

What if you can't see reality anymore because a hacker takes over your mind and shows you something different? Anon paints a world where we could face augmented mental torture.

Anon shows the cycle of abuse: how those who are abused and framed, may abuse and torture others who think they've done it, in order to protect themselves.

In the end, the detective and female hacker save each other, and she disappears into anonymity again.

Which begs for the questions we should start asking ourselves: When are we more protected? When our identity is protected more than our anonymity, or vice versa? And most importantly: who runs the bots that should be protecting us?

What we can learn from Anon is that both situations are dangerous: complete anonymity and protection of data, as well as capturing all data, and everyone's every move.

When a child is doing things it shouldn't do, we try to teach boundaries. We can't erase every situation for a child or avoid triggers or temptations for the child, so sometimes getting the child out of a situation doesn't work. We need to give a child the space and tools to learn how to cope with different situations and emotions, and address things a child does that are immoral and teach them about it. Absolute resolutions should only be necessary in case nothing else helps or when there's an immediate danger.

It's the same with society: complete anonymity or collection of all data, are so absolute, they are both options bound to be abused by malicious people. We need to get to the core of the problem: trying to come up with extreme systems mainly ran by bots to protect human beings is ridiculous, because we are in fact human. We need to focus on humane systems, that are controlled by humans, to fight these issues.

Technology can only do so much, but as long as moral AI hasn't been invented yet, we can't rely on bot-systems alone. We need human beings who check these systems, constantly, because there are in fact humans who will abuse these systems and the people relying on those systems.

The more digital systems we are creating, the more the internet will expand, the more complex fighting online violence will become, if we don't at the same time keep improving our online security and how we protect ourselves.

Anon is a good reminder that while we're watching billionaires shooting cars into space, criminals are learning new ways to target us on earth. That, should matter to all of us.

You can find Anon on Netflix.


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