Nothing to hide? Artist to 'hack' phones, project dirty secrets as persons' Data Shadow

If you have nothing to hide, then artist Mark Farid wants to hack your phone as he melds data security, mobile privacy and art -- harvesting 'embarrassing' personal info from phones and projecting that data onto a person's shadow.

hacker in shadow
Credit: Thinkstock

“If you’ve got nothing to hide, let’s actually see if you’ve got nothing to hide,” said artist Mark Farid; he plans to “hack” smartphones and harvest real-time data that is normally invisible to phones’ owners and then broadcast that personal data as “data shadows.” He hopes his interactive art installation makes people feel angry, annoyed and frustrated. He hopes “people have an issue with us. I hope some people will say ‘it’s not cool of you to have done that’.”

It’s not a question of ‘to tweet or not to tweet,’ but more a question of who owns the contents of our personal messages? What exactly did you agree to share with companies when you started using an app, cloud storage service or social media? Although personal messages sent over the Internet or via texts might seem private, you are the product and your data is controlled by businesses as a commodity. That data might be “invisible” to you, but not to hackers or to companies. “Everything you're doing in virtual space is under the illusion of privacy, but it's completely public. Just as it is in the real world,” Farid stated during an interview with The Memo.

“It's as if we are leaving not only our private diaries and wallets open, but also who our friends are, what we're thinking, and our biggest insecurities – the insecurities we wouldn't even speak to our loved ones about.” Farid told the Cambridge Network, “We're more honest with Google than we are with anyone else. We believe companies gathering personal data leave us anonymous, but in fact we may be sharing more than we realize.”

“I did a test and realized our phones send out around 350,000 messages a day to connect to WiFi, or websites sending data of your activity to multiple other websites, websites I've never heard of from around the world,” Farid said. “I only have basic programming skills but it's worrying how quickly I could gain access to people's phones.”

Techopedia defines a data shadow as “a slang term that refers to the sum of all small traces of information that an individual leaves behind through everyday activities. It is a minute piece of data created when an individual sends an email, updates a social media profile, swipes a credit card, uses an ATM and so on.” Farid’s “Data Shadow” is an art installation which is meant to explore the issue of data mining and raise “questions about the apparent lack of security of our mobile phone data.”

Data Shadow Cambridge Network

His system will harvest “a limited amount of the personal data” from volunteers’ phones, filter the data for privacy, and then “project it onto the hard surfaces around them, creating a ‘shadow’ of their movements as they walk down the street.”

Farid told The Memo:

We are trying to make it so it’s actually the most embarrassing pictures that we can find; in term of text messages it’s likely to be the most recent. For example, you’re told to make a phone call to your other half, or ideally your mum…It’s about bringing you face-to-face with your information, because ethically you have given us permission to see it but it isn’t clear at all what’s going to happen.

If Farid’s name sounds familiar, it might be due to “Seeing I,” a social-artistic experiment during which Farid planned to spend 28 days alone in a room wearing an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset in order to experience “every waking moment through the eyes of another human being.” This time around, his art will combine data privacy and mobile security issues as Farid makes “the public aware of the privacy they are potentially sacrificing through regularly using a mobile phone and the Internet.”

He will meld data security, privacy and art, claiming “identity and/or anonymity through digital mediators” are core themes of his art. “The Internet was supposed to be the truest form of democracy,” Farid said. “In reality, it’s become a capitalist utopia.” He asked:

Do we realize how easily our phones can be hacked into in a matter of minutes? That our income bracket, bank passwords, movements, and even home address can be found by anyone with basic coding skills, let alone by data mining companies? Are we controlling technology sufficiently to create the utopia it has the potential for, or is it tipping us into dystopia?

Farid was selected for a five-month artist-in-residency program at Collusion, “a creative agency working at the intersection of arts, technology and human interaction,” and is an awardee of the 2015 Real Time Commission. Data Shadow, which will be held from October 26 to November 1 at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas, is described “an individual experience (one participant at a time), taking place in a 8x2m shipping container in central Cambridge and lasting approximately four minutes. During their journey through the container, the participant will come face to face with their own, personal data shadow.”

The Data Shadow website will go live on October 26, the same day as the panel discussion for “Data shadow: Anonymity is our only right, and that is why it must be destroyed;” Farid and “a panel of academics and technologists” will discuss “how our personal data is collected and used, and whether this level of data-mining is morally right and should continue.”

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