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maryann johanson, ruining movies since 1997

question of the day: Would you check your cell phone at a movie?

I’ve discussed before the pointless security procedures critics have to go through, sometimes, in order to get into a press screening, such as having our belongings searched for recording devices. The most ridiculous thing that happens, at some screenings, is that “security guards” collect cell phones with cameras and hold them till the movie’s over. No, check that: the most ridiculous thing is — and this has happened more than once — the “security guards” collect all cell phones, regardless of whether they are equipped with cameras or not. When I upgraded my phone a few years ago, I specifically avoided getting one with a camera (which I really would have liked to have, actually) so I wouldn’t have to go through the hassle of surrendering my phone and then reclaiming it after the screening — which really is a major hassle. Hundreds of people all clamoring for their phones back at the same time is not a pretty sight.

But not only is all this a major pain in the ass, there are other issues at play, too, as Cory Doctorow discussed in an article in the Guardian on Tuesday:

Let’s talk about hypothetical risks. If you go to a big preview screening in Leicester Square – a privilege given to the press, entertainment industry VIPs, and a fair number of punters who win radio phone-in prizes – you’ll be asked to leave your mobile phone in a baggie behind a counter at the front of the cinema.

The film industry says that this is a necessary precaution against the hypothetical losses that would result should someone use a mobile phone to “camcord” (that is, record from the audience) a pre-release movie and leak it onto the internet….

When pressed, spokespeople from the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT) and the Film Distributors’ Association (FDA) admitted they had never heard of a pirated movie “in the wild” that originated with a mobile phone, nor, to the best of their knowledge, had anyone ever been ejected from a cinema for attempting this.

What’s more, although FACT and the FDA stressed their belief that the majority of pirate movies originate with camcorders, they also admitted that this was never the case with pre-release movies: film previews have never been a source of film piracy.

That’s one factor: piracy by people who camcord a movie with their cell phones at press screenings simply is not happening. And yet the studios continue to playact this security theater anyway.

But wait, there’s more:

Which brings us to the other theoretical risk: the risk of leaving hundreds of increasingly powerful phones in the safekeeping of a cinema, out of your sight for two or three hours while you watch gigantic robots throwing buildings at each other.

This risk is also substantial. From sim cloning (copying the phone’s sim so that other phones can use your account, listen to your voicemail, and make calls that are billed to you) to data theft, the risks are enormous. Think of the data storage on your phone – that potential 64GB on a postage-stamp-sized SD card. That’s enough to carry around libraries’ worth of confidential or proprietary information – several times the amount of data lost in the enormous HMRC leak of family financial information last year. Add to that the contact information – personal phone numbers for all the people in the lives of everyone at the movie, including, for example, ministers of state and other VIPs who are routinely invited to previews. Then consider confidential diaries, family photos, personal voice memos, access to your search history …

Once you start enumerating the potentially sensitive information on a mobile phone, it’s hard to stop….

What’s more, the more confidential – and useful – things there are on your phone, the less likely you are to want to leave it at home during a night out. Indeed, the very capabilities that make a phone useful also make it indispensable. It doesn’t take a techno-visionary to see the train wreck in the offing.

I’ve worried about this kind of thing before, in fact — not with my cell phone, which doesn’t have much sensitive information on it (but if and when I upgrade to an iPhone, that will be an issue, considering how much of my life now resides in my iPod Touch… which is the purpose I bought it for in the first place, to be my external brain!), but with my laptop, which I have been required to surrender at more than one screening. What’s more, typically the security people who want to take my laptop also want my driver’s license, so that they can be sure that they give the computer back to the right person after the screening. But an unscrupulous person now would not only have access to some very private information indeed, he or she would also know where I live!

I’ve also sometimes been required to sign disclaimers when surrending my laptop acknowledging that the people taking responsibility for my expensive equipment take no responsibility for it and can’t be held liable if it’s damaged or lost!

Leaving this stuff — laptop and phone — home isn’t always possible. If I’m out all day bouncing from screening to screening, I must have my laptop and phone with me: it’s the only way I can keep even halfway caught up with my work. We critics are working journalists — these are the tools of our trade. We can no more be without them than a plumber can be without a wrench.

And as Doctorow points out in the Guardian, cell phones are getting much more powerful — it may soon be possible to record a movie in high definition on a phone. When that day comes to pass, Would you check your cell phone at a movie? Would you leave your phone home (thereby rendering it pointless)? Or would you stop going to the movies?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me.)

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