Surveillance as Performance Art

Hasan Elahi has been making his every movement public, after being detained by the FBI (and then cleared) when entering the country:

For the next few months, every trip Elahi took, he’d call his FBI agent and give the routing, so he didn’t get detained along the way. He realized, after a point -- why just tell the FBI -- why not tell everyone?

So he hacked his cellphone into a tracking bracelet which he wears on his ankle, reporting his movements on a map -- log onto his site and you can see that he’s in Camden. But he’s gone further, trying to document his life in a series of photos: the airports he passes through, the meals he eats, the bathrooms he uses. The result is a photographic record of his daily life which would be very hard to falsify. We all know photos can be digitally altered... but altering as many photos as Elahi puts online would require a whole team trying to build this alternative path through the world.

Elahi also puts other apsects of his life online, including his banking records. This gives a record of his purchases, which complements the photographs. He doesn’t put the phone records online, because it would compromise the privacy of the people he talks with, and some friends have asked him to stop visiting, but he views the self-surveillance both as an art form and as his perpetual alibi for the next time the FBI questions him.

At the same time, he’s stretching the limits of surveillance systems, taking advantage of non-places. He flew to Singapore for four days and never left the airport, never clearing customs. For four days, he was noplace -- he’d fallen off the map, which is precisely what the FBI and others worry about. But he documented every noodle and every toilet along the way.

This is extreme, but the level of surveillance is likely to be the norm. It won't be on a public website available to everyone, but it will be available to governments and corporations.

Posted on October 27, 2006 at 12:49 PM • 26 Comments

Comments

hmmmOctober 27, 2006 1:26 PM

Actually, if he was reported as having had explosives in his locker, the initial reaction (by the FBI) is appropriate; however it should be fairly easy to show that there never were any there (if that was truly the case) at which point they should apologize, explain they were only doing their jobs and let him go on his way and provide transportation for any trip he missed while they justifiably but unecessarily detained him.

Brandioch ConnerOctober 27, 2006 1:39 PM

Very scary comment there.

"He explains that the power dynamic of an FBI interview leads to a very human response - the desire for survival. Elahi says that he could have questioned the legality of the experience, hiring a lawyer… but he realized that there was the possibility that any act of resistance could have gotten him sent to Guantanamo."

When you are afraid to exercise your Rights, you don't have any Rights.

Social hackerOctober 27, 2006 2:06 PM

Please don't tell me the FBI actually thinks this is a good idea?

I can get a good description from the photos...now one only needs some backstage "work" to look like him (for a few minutes), and an itinerary.

If I can pass as him on a security camera (or from testimony of a shaken witness), and know just when he'll be arriving in the area (I can watch him get closer on my phone). All I need is to wait for him to be in the right area.

And he DOES seem to get around.

This is just an incredibly bad idea. There are good reasons that this sort of surveilance information SHOULD be private. Then again...SHOULD this information ever be collected?

I'd love to live in a country where this isn't even debatable (on the NOT side).

KerubOctober 27, 2006 2:20 PM

the reference is something between Roger O. Thornhill and George Kaplan in North By Northwest.

Daniel FeldmanOctober 27, 2006 2:50 PM

This is not a "perpetual alibi," because there's no guarantee Elahi's phone records his true location.

Davi OttenheimerOctober 27, 2006 3:19 PM

"altering as many photos as Elahi puts online would require a whole team trying to build this alternative path through the world"

Bah, the next phase of image/video geolocation software is to assemble trips (virtual or real) just like this. The really impressive thing here is that Elahi has apparently built his own instead of using someone else's platform....

Incidentally, we should not under/overestimate the time it will take LEOs to transition to new viz formats. I once worked on systems meant to migrate surgeons from flat black and white images to lovely 3d fly-throughs. To the common person, the 3d images were awesome -- just like real life. To the surgeons, however, the 3d was next to useless for two reasons:
1) they were so well-trained on the b/w slices that a change in the routine was highly disruptive to their ability to act without pause (and a pause could be life-threatening)
2) they had a hard time (for good reason, including hardware limitations of the time) trusting the accuracy of the new 3d viz systems

antimediaOctober 27, 2006 3:21 PM

Bruce, I have to ask, do you seriously believe this? "This is extreme, but the level of surveillance is likely to be the norm. It won't be on a public website available to everyone, but it will be available to governments and corporations."

Because if you do, you have no idea of how incompetent government agencies are or how little resources they have to do this sort of thing.

It reminds me of the silly canard that Microsoft is collecting all the information about your computer. Do you have any idea how much storage space it would require and how many humans would have to be hired to sift through all that data just to figure out what YOU are doing?

It's preposterous. The government might be able to keep track of hundreds, perhaps even thousands of peoples' every move. But 300 million? Not a snowball's chance in Hades.

It's sill paranoia, plain and simple. And you accuse the government's (mostly useless) attempts at security as "fear-based"?

Anonymous CowardOctober 27, 2006 3:49 PM

The government won't have to track your every move. You will.

Ever use a camcorder? Think about wearing one. Every day. All day.

And while you think on that, consider how much information the ECHELON system processes today. Think about that system in fifty years.

This may not happen tomorrow...but I'm with Bruce...it will happen.

Brad LhotskyOctober 27, 2006 4:21 PM

All you have to do is have the new government issued IDs with RFID embedded. The state and local governments can easily incorporate a GPS enabled RFID scanner into the cars/equipment of law enforcement and public officials.

Passing by such a scanner would record who, when, & where. That would at least be a start. It wouldn't be difficult if States started implementing RFID based driver's licenses. Those devices could use the cell bands to communicate data back to a collector of some sort.

Actually, some civilians would volunteer to carry a device that "improved the security of America!", particularly if they got a $500 tax credit too! Not that it would matter as a number of states are already considering RFID based speed detection on major highways.

Davi OttenheimerOctober 27, 2006 4:27 PM

"it will happen"

I'm not with either of you, it is already happening. I run into software developers all the time who are buildng real-time geolocation image and video management systems. But antimedia is right, that the ability of the government to use this data effectively is a whole other issue.

Don't forget, 9/11 did not happen because the information was not available, but because of a complex bureaucracy made worse by extremists who hate sources of info other than those they control. I just heard from someone the other day who *still* believes evidence of WMD will show up some day to vindicate Bush's rush into Iraq.

So I say systems for total awareness are already here. The more pressing question is whether the operators are intelligent or open-minded enough to use them within a rational/legal framework...

"some friends have asked him to stop visiting"

I liked this line because it reminds me friends who ask me to never type their address into the popular map/direction programs. Think of all the A to B correlations people are entering into the mapping software and whether anyone is mining that data.

RG3October 27, 2006 4:45 PM

@antimedia:

It doesn't matter that a government can't track _everything_ about _everyone_. From an oppressive gov't's point of view, for example, the important thing is that you never know who is watching you and when. You then end up guarding yourself.

quincunxOctober 27, 2006 4:50 PM

For those that fear the police state, keep in mind that the 'rulers' need the market means available to them for their crimes. Ergo, it would not be in their best interest to give their political opponents a method to reveal their own dirty secrets.

Until we have a unilateral dictatorship (coming soon, if not here already with the Military Commission Act of 2006), we don't have to worry about a single thing.

@antimedia

"Because if you do, you have no idea of how incompetent government agencies are or how little resources they have to do this sort of thing."

The is first absolutely correct, the latter is not. The government has plenty of resources that it can tap via taxation, borrowing, and money creation. Are you not aware of the enormous grants handed out to the states, corporations, and localities for various pork barrel privacy-invading projects?

http://www.lewrockwell.com/higgs/higgs50.html

To illustrate this even further, think about this: not a single tax dollar was spent on the Iraqi War. All done though foreign borrowing, and the printing press. It will take a little more time before the costs of the war are truly revealed to the consuming public.

"It's preposterous. The government might be able to keep track of hundreds, perhaps even thousands of peoples' every move. But 300 million? Not a snowball's chance in Hades."

You can be surprised what the gov can do!

Considering the fact that the government, thoughtout the country's history has confiscated, expropriated, regulated out of profits, and generally nationalized various industries either all at once, or gradually, usually playing the 'emergency' ticket.

The gov can force all the costs of compliance onto the relatively few corporations, passing the cost of compliance directly onto the consumer employee, and investor. Therefore the typically scenario the government can employ is to the have the subjects make their own shackles.

Forcing all the costs onto the subjects, and violating their property, is the persistent MO of the government function.

Therefore do not be surprised if it can nationalize the ISP industry or the WiFi industry, which for some reason the 'net neutrality' people don't seem to get that that is exactly what their efforts will lead to.

wkwillisOctober 27, 2006 5:53 PM

You don't seem to understand the motivations of mean people.
The government can get people to track you for free. The opportunity to hurt other people is something you can sell, not just buy.
It's very hard to shut down the death squads, or keep them under control, though. When the death squads realise that they are the government, you can get very nasty, very fast. Remember what happened to the Conservative Party in Germany when they gave power to Hitler to use him to shut down the trade unionists?

WumpusOctober 27, 2006 7:06 PM

[from antimedia]

Because if you do, you have no idea of how incompetent government agencies are or how little resources they have to do this sort of thing.

It reminds me of the silly canard that Microsoft is collecting all the information about your computer. Do you have any idea how much storage space it would require and how many humans would have to be hired to sift through all that data just to figure out what YOU are doing?
[end quote]

I think that enough posters have refuted part one. As for the "silly cannard", you hopefully have heard of data compression (don't learn crypto without it). While 5 Gigs of windows for every computer may seem hard for Redmond to store, presumably they only have to encode "stock XP Pro SP2, IE7.0.1.x, etc.", which would take less than 1k. As for the "how many humans to sift through the data", Google can already automate this. Microsoft wants to be able to as well.

Wumpus

Geoff LaneOctober 28, 2006 5:17 AM

I read a blog recently (though I can't remember where right now) in which the author said that if he were ever asked by the state to use his fingerprints to validate his identity by he would make sure that high definition images of his fingerprints were posted on the Internet -- and he would encourage everybody else to do the same.

The point being, none of the biometric "identity" measures are in any way secret. Even iris images are public and are potentially recorded by any iris based identity check (or any eyeglass shop.) We shed DNA and leave fingerprints everywhere...

Personal identity is a phantom, the closer you try to tie it down the less substantial it becomes. Using personal identity as a terrorist prevention/detection measure is doomed to failure for one very simple reason -- identity and intent are not in any manner related and to claim otherwise is at least misleading and at worst, racist.

kashmarekOctober 28, 2006 9:18 AM

"This is extreme, but the level of surveillance is likely to be the norm. It won't be on a public website available to everyone, but it will be available to governments and corporations."

And why the norm for corporations? Because this is the driving force behind all data collection, so the information can be used to market to you. But once that point is reached, the likelihood of you having any money to buy anything, is pretty small.

another_bruceOctober 28, 2006 10:39 AM

think of the crimp this will place on adultery and other illicit sexual liaisons. mr. jones does **not** want the government (and potentially, his wife) watching and following along in real time as he steps out on her for some fancy bit o' young fluff. he's gonna game this somehow.

the other GregOctober 28, 2006 7:01 PM

Those who claim the blackhats are incompetent to track 300 million people are stupid. The blackhats have no need and no wish to do that.

Perhaps they would like the timid to believe they can.

What they can do and what they wish to do is, having chosen an incident or a person, examine the accumulated recordings, choosing incriminating records, losing exonerating records.

Every police-riot everywhere in the world for the last decade or so has been accompanied by reports that organized squads scoured the battlefield seizing and destroying cameras. Sometimes they attacked massmedia, too.

David Brin used to point out that ubiquitous records are not the problem. People who have nothing to hide truly do not bother to hide. You cannot hide anyway : if the 'security' cams don't remember you, the people with you will.

The problems are that the people who can do the most damage can afford the most secrecy, and almost all your records are in the hands of those same people.

Fenris FoxOctober 29, 2006 12:25 AM

I think a lot of you are taking this article way too seriously, deeply, and far. It's a satire - plain and simple. And IMO, a damned good satire. A new, less dark and Luddite-like way of looking at this surveillance stuff is sorely needed - and he found it.

@the other Greg

Every police-riot everywhere in the world for the last decade or so has been accompanied by reports that organized squads scoured the battlefield seizing and destroying cameras. Sometimes they attacked massmedia, too.

Heh.. that's why camera phones - complete with MMS and mail-to-web services - are such an interesting innovation. Let them try to destroy those cameras.. by then, the photos will be live.

Seriously, though, a lot of this stuff is in third-world countries and stuff (Tianamen Square, anyone?) - so what I mentioned wouldn't matter much. The pic might or might not make it to the Net (jamming, network censorware/censorservers).. but you know where the bullet would go.

steven e streight aka vaspers the grateOctober 29, 2006 2:14 AM

But I thought you were going to talk about the avant guerilla theatre troupes who perform for surveillance cameras, an specially written skit or play, then vanish, and do one at some other camera.

To think of the camera film auditors and inspectors seeing, rather than the occasional passers-by, a full narrative, or whatever it was, and not knowing what or why.

SecurityOctober 29, 2006 2:36 AM

hrw.org/english/docs/2006/01/03/usdom12354_txt.htm


Here are some other similar stories to this one -

fortunately some were cleared .

Hey Nonny Nonny MouseOctober 30, 2006 7:00 AM

I love the idea that a polugraph,
which is inadmissable as evidence in
court, "cleared" the man, after they
did nine of them. You'd think that
once the FBI found out that he had not,
in fact, fled, and that there were no
explosives in the locker, he would
have been cleared. But apparently,
the FBI puts more stock in a device
of questionable reliability whose
results couldn't be used in a trial.

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