Modern field guide to security and privacy

Dutch art project exposes extent of surveillance, tests limits of law

The arts collective known as SETUP built a detailed catalog of the population in the Netherlands based on open data sources. The information it collected proved so revealing that making it public would violate privacy laws.

Cris Toala Olivares/Reuters
A worker prepares a security camera ahead of President Obama's visit to the Museumplein in Amsterdam in 2014.

Global discussions over the trade-offs that come with increasingly pervasive surveillance – whether government spying or commercial data mining – aren't just happening at congressional hearings or in European parliamentary chambers.

More and more, it's a conversation taking place in the world's major galleries and museums as artists and arts collectives turn their attention to exploring the societal impacts of the massive amounts of data collection in the Digital Age.

With the advent of global surveillance, "Our world is becoming better behaved, but perhaps less human," said Tijmen Schep, creative director of the Dutch arts collective SETUP, which for the past two years has worked on building a national database of Dutch citizens based solely on open source data. 

The initial point of the project – originally known as the National Birthday Calendar – was to create a provocative, interactive site that would know every Dutch citizen's birthday and recommend gifts based on their personal preferences. It became so easy to gather the information about people, and they collected so much that they began referring to it as the DIY NSA, a tongue-in-cheek reference to a do-it-yourself National Security Agency.

"We expected it to be easy, but it was even easier,” says Mr. Schep, creative director of SETUP, who said the goal of the project is to raise awareness about how data collection is eroding personal privacy because everyone's personal lives are exposed and easily accessible. 

"It speaks so much to the oppressive nature of these technologies," he said earlier this year at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival, where he presented the project. "Privacy is the right to be imperfect. The right to not be the perfect consumer or the perfect citizen."

As technology pushes further into our daily lives, raising questions about the impact on individual privacy, a slew of new exhibits are challenging people to consider the effects of surveillance. For instance, filmmaker Laura Poitras, best known for "Citizenfour," her Academy Award winning documentary on Edward Snowden, has a solo show at the Whitney in New York called Astro Noise that takes on government spying and the US drone program.

There's also Globale: Global Control and Censorship at ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany, that aims to "expand public debate about the ever-present surveillance and censorship methods." In Vienna at the freiraum Q21 museum, As Rights Go By explores "the impact of globalization, financialization, and mass surveillance on civil rights and human rights." And, Hacking Habitat (in a former prison in Utrecht, the Netherlands) attempts to demonstrate how "high-tech systems are taking increasing control of our lives."

Many of these projects are pushing boundaries using shocking imagery and humor to reach viewers. For instance, a tracking cookies project SETUP created for a Dutch festival encouraged people to pick a cookie that matched their current emotion, scan the laser-cut QR code on it with their phones, and eat the cookie.

SETUP then created maps showing where and when which emotions were most commonly eaten. Another project called Koppie Koppie sold mugs printed with pictures of children from Flickr.

For its DIY NSA project, SETUP volunteers created the database over the course of six hackathons since 2015. They scoured archived files of dead websites for personal data. Profiles from a Dutch analog, a defunct Dutch social network called Hyves, and a dead site for senior citizens, when cross-referenced with phone book records, were very valuable. They also found databases of all Dutch accountants, of clarinet enthusiasts, of amateur soccer players.

As the participants prepared to dig in, SETUP engaged with the national Dutch Data Protection Authority to ensure that they didn’t violate any privacy laws themselves while trying to make a point. The privacy experts they are working with had some requests: Keep the database offline in an encrypted server, don’t take the database out of the country, and omit "sensitive" data, which for them includes race, sexual orientation, and medical records.

Because of those Dutch privacy laws, the project won't be available online. Artists who want to use the DIY NSA files to create projects must sign nondisclosure agreements before accessing the database. "We take security at the highest priority with this project," Schep says.

But if nothing else, he says, the project is helping spark more conversations about how the data collected about people online – and how it's used by government, companies, and criminals.

"If you send a spam e-mail and it includes your actual address, you are much more likely to trust the e-mail," Schep says. "We’re heading into a whole new level of spam and abuse that will make it more difficult for people to know who to trust."


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