Books & Arts | Published:

Digital privacy: Subverting surveillance

Nature volume 524, page 413 (27 August 2015) | Download Citation

Anthony King tours a playful exhibition that probes covert data collection and tracking.

Secret: Nothing to See Here

Science Gallery, Trinity College Dublin. Until 1 November.

When US computer analyst and government contractor Edward Snowden began lifting the lid on the covert surveillance activities of the US National Security Agency (NSA) in 2013, the social implications shocked even cynics. Now, Secret, the latest show at Dublin's Science Gallery, probes this dark side of the digital age through 23 eclectic exhibits.

Curated by Ian Brunswick, Marie Redmond, Tad Hirsch and Julian Oliver, Secret asks what is being hidden from us, what we are hiding and why. It pushes visitors to debate the automated collection of data by businesses and governments. And it prompts us to playfully subvert mass surveillance, echoing the gallery's 2012 exhibition Hack the City (see Nature 486, 470; 2012) and its call to take back urban spaces and services.

Once inside the gallery, first up is Please Empty Your Pockets by artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer — an exhibit inviting you to decant your possessions onto a conveyor belt with a scanner. It feels invasive as you divest yourself of your smartphone. And it reminds you that such 'exposure' is nothing compared to how our movements, conversations and personal data are collected, archived and utilized by others every day, often by means of smartphones set to track our every move.

Transparency Grenade by Julian Oliver explores the ease of leaking information. Image: Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin

You can fight back — for instance, throwing a spanner in the works of Big Brother by using artist Benjamin Grosser's ScareMail. This browser extension supplements e-mail signatures with spurious algorithm-generated narratives, replete with probable NSA search terms such as 'facility', 'plot' or 'dirty bomb'. E-mail-surveillance programs aim to detect certain keywords, so such bogus stories disarm them. Another browser add-on, AdNauseum by artist Daniel Howe and designer Mushon Zer-Aviv, blocks ads on web pages while simultaneously clicking each ad in the background — dual action that whitewashes a user's profile with a meaningless spray of data. Its anarchic aim is to fan mistrust between advertisers and ad networks.

Downstairs, you get a chance to sample the fruit of a bizarre digital accident. Artist Zoë Irvine unwittingly recorded two years' worth of her phone calls — but only her side of the conversation. In Your Voice Is You, you can listen in on a white rotary-dial telephone. Using voice-analysis software, Irvine has organized her one-sided chats under the categories truth, confusion, embarrassment, stress, excitement, anticipation and suspected lies. It feels oddly intrusive, even given Irvine's licence to eavesdrop.

Visitors can also play intelligence analysts in the interactive artwork Crowd-Sourced Intelligence Agency by Jennifer Gradecki and Derek Curry. Faced with 100 tweets from each of more than 26,000 Science Gallery Twitter followers, you are asked to tag a post as threatening, non-threatening or flagged for review by other agents, adding notes to explain your decision. “It opens up the process for people to participate in surveillance themselves,” explains Gradecki. When a tweet is evaluated, the original poster is notified and given a link to the post on the artwork's website. The point? That such overt, democratic involvement is denied us when government or corporate entities explore social media.

There is a frolicsome flavour to the Spy Puzzle Café by artist Ruben Pater (working as Untold Stories), where you can test your puzzle-solving acumen by navigating a maze in the form of a portrait of Snowden. And there are special events: for example, you can try your hand at lock-picking in a two-hour workshop for the true enthusiast. Lock-picker and ethical hacker Martin Mitchell will reveal how to unlock devices by analysing and manipulating the components. Of course, it is what you do with this knowledge that matters; as exhibition researcher Zack Denfeld puts it: “We want to encourage impish curiosity.”

This is a show that strives to teach, tease and irk visitors into considering the ubiquity of secrets and secret-breakers. There is enough thought-provoking fun here to deflect the worst of any angst over digital surveillance, even as it continues to nibble at our collective psyche.

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  1. Anthony King is a writer based in Dublin.

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