‘Black Mirror’ Made a Murder Thriller About Overbearing Licensing Agreements

"Crocodile" isn't about mind-reading technology, it's about the End User License Agreements that enable it.

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Jan 2 2018, 2:59pm

Image: Netflix

This post contains spoilers for the Black Mirror episode "Crocodile."

The Black Mirror episode “Crocodile” is likely the first science fiction that imagines a future in which an overbearing End User License Agreement results in the murder of an entire family. Considering how deeply these documents have become entrenched in our lives, it’s not all that farfetched.

On its surface, the episode is about Mia, an architect with a dark secret, who—after making the kind of tremendously rash decision that seems to only happen in Black Mirror—finds herself having to hide a murder from an insurance investigator named Shazia, who is armed with a technology called a recaller that allows her to see people’s memories.

The recaller consists of two parts—a video screen and a small transmitter that’s placed on the person being interviewed. The transmitter sends a person’s memory to the video screen, which is then used as evidence for insurance claims (and presumably criminal proceedings, too). Mia murdered someone in a hotel room, but witnessed a traffic accident out the window while she was covering it up. Shazia is investigating the traffic accident, and asks to see Mia’s memories, which in this case includes the murder.

But the transmitter isn’t used unless the person being interviewed agrees to a EULA, those extremely long documents that nobody reads and that you have to agree to in order to use your new phone/computer/app/software. Mia agrees to the recaller’s EULA without reading it (it’s long!), allowing Shazia to see her commit a murder and thereby necessitating many more murders, because EULAs are evil.

Let me spare you the detail on the boring grisly murders and instead dissect how we know that Black Mirror’s EULAs are just as overbearing as the ones we have to sign are.

Black Mirror creator and the episode writer Charlie Brooker leaves a few important clues that the EULA for Shazia's “recaller” is to blame for some of Mia’s horrible acts. In this case, Shazia is investigating the traffic accident—Mia’s murder wasn’t initially part of Shazia's investigation. But tipped off by a hotel receptionist about Mia’s television viewing habits, Shazia suspects that Mia might not want to cooperate with her: “She was doing something embarrassing in the hotel room, watching a porn film,” she said to her partner before going to meet Mia. “She might not want me poking around in her head.”

This line of dialogue is important, because a few minutes later Shazia tells Mia that being interviewed “is a legal requirement since last year.” I believe that this is a lie, considering that mere moments ago, Shazia suggested that Mia might opt to not use the recaller device.

Shazia sits in Mia’s living room, passes her a phone or tablet with the recaller’s EULA loaded—“you can read the terms here if you like, all the legal stuff is in there,” she said. It is at this point that Mia makes yet another dumb decision: Although she has just murdered someone (as Shazia will soon learn), she decides not to read the terms and conditions before agreeing. “It’s a bit of a long read, isn’t it?”

Scientific studies have shown that basically no one reads EULAs, and that the lengths of many of them rival that of novels. It’s hard to blame Mia for not reading the EULA. But I would like to kindly suggest that if you find yourself in a situation in which the options are to read a long legal document or submit to exposing the details of a murder you recently committed, you should probably read the document.

We don’t know what the recaller’s EULA says, but chances are it would have given Shazia's company wide latitude to do whatever it wanted with the images it recorded from Mia’s head. It also probably would have said that she didn’t have to submit to the test if she didn’t agree with the terms, presumably allowing her to simply have to live with the guilt of one murder rather than a bloody rampage.

EULAs are omnipresent in the tech world and have begun creeping into things like cars, SodaStreams, coffee makers, and even tattoos. They have been used to create a parallel legal system in which companies set the terms and conditions: “The license agreement, in short, has us over the proverbial barrel,” law professors Aaron Perzanowski and Jason Schultz write in the book The End of Ownership. They are, easily, some of the most dystopic things we deal with on a day-to-day basis, and make for a good frame for a Black Mirror episode.

Mia found it more palatable to systematically murder an entire family than to read the fine print. The scary thing about “Crocodile” is that it’s hard to blame her.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the name of the insurance investigator. Her name is Shazia, not Kiran (the actress's name is Kiran Sonia Sawar).