Privacy under attack!

Report by Christel Vesters about DEAF03 Open Territories: Project Presentations, which took place on 26 February 2003.

With a small audience present, the afternoon started with a presentation by Austrian art/design collective Automat. Their project H.I.D.E. (Human Identity Database Emulation) consists of collecting human identities. In the booth they set up in the exhibition space, people are asked to be photographed and donate their 'identity' to the H.I.D.E. database. When they do, the image of their face is digitally encoded and broken down into pixels, and entered into the V2_ web environment.

Automat is not so much concerned with the question of what to do with the collected information - and the possibilities are multiple - as well as with the act of collecting an sich. What happens with the accumulated data, is up to the owners: the can implement or integrate it into other databases, circulate it etc.
When asked 'Why should people participate in this project?' Automat will rhetorically answer: Why not? It's common practice and an everyday phenomenon that personal information is taken from you and stored into a database. But at least with H.I.D.E. you are given the choice to have personal information stored.

The issue of privacy, or the protection of our privacy, is a hot topic in the debate on databases and information collecting. The H.I.D.E. project tries to simulate the data collecting process, and the way personal information can be distracted from you, knowingly or unknowingly. But where Automat doesn't critically examine or comment upon the possible - ethical - consequences of the collecting of private data, the project Privacy Card that was next presented, does.

Privacy Card is a project by the German artist/activist duo FoeBuD, formed by Rena Tangens and pandeluun. Before explaining this project, they introduced another one: The Big Brother Award. This award has nothing to do with Endemol productions, but rather with George Orwell's classical novel '1984' (London, 1949) and Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World' (London, 1985), both dealing with totalitarian regimes and state control through the surveillance and collection of information about its citizens. The Big Brother Award is annually given to persons, organizations or companies that have excelled in abusing private information. In 2000 the German edition of the award was given to the Loyalty Partner Gesellschaft fuer Kundenbindingsysteme, the biggest card-based bonus system in Germany. With regard to these 'bonus cards', FoeBuD wonders why people are almost helping 'Big Brother' to collect information about them, how people almost volunteer to be recorded into databases - e.g. through the use of credit cards, mobile phones, or these consumer cards - without realizing what the possible future effects might be. According to FoeBuD it's all a matter of convenience. With some recent examples, the artists explained some possible scenarios of what might happen when personal information is stored and used for different purposes or in a different context. For instance, a woman had herself tested on HIV and was consequently kicked out of her health insurance. Or, one day you went shopping for baking powder, fertilizer for your garden and an alarm clock, and you paid for it with your credit card. This information independently entered into databases, but when these are combined, the fact that you bought these three products might qualify you as a potential terrorist.

There are of course many examples and most of the time information is stored without us being aware of it. In addition, the institutes - whether companies or governments - that make use of this information do so through very opaque networks and linking processes. But what is more worrying, is the fact we have lost control over what happens with these data, how something might be merged with other databases, and how we might be categorized and judged according to an image that emerges from these connected data. After all, having yourself tested does not necessarily mean you're ill. Although there are laws in Europe that should protect our privacy, it is still legal to collect information about us through instruments like bonus cards, credit cards etc.

To raise some awareness about these issues, FoeBuD introduced the Privacy Card: a symbolic hack into the Loyalty Card system that registers information about people's shopping behavior through their bonus cards and produces shoppers profiles. FoeBuD requested one bonus card, copied it's unique code onto 2000 Privacy Cards which were distributed amongst a large group of people who then all went shopping at the same time in different stores in different cities. With so many people using 'the same' card, the information that entered the database must have 'scrambled' the system of individual shopper's profiles. But the project caused the most damage through the media.

Both Privacy Card and the Big Brother Awards critically address issues of privacy, information control, and the difficulty to defend or protect ourselves from the way these powerful phenomena pervade our everyday life. Questions of privacy - or the right to protect your privacy - become even pressing within the Public Realm. How big is our private space within the public domain? Where do our personal demands end and does public interest begin? To what extend can we control what enters and doesn't enter into our private domain, and how much do we tolerate others to enter? Universal issues that have currently become hot issues on the sociopolitical agenda in the Netherlands.

Dutch artists Taco Stolk and Arthur Elsenaar are seriously irritated by the use of mobile phones in public areas. They are really not interested in overhearing your argument with your boyfriend and so on. In order to protect themselves from this unwanted interference into their private domain, they invented the BuBL Space. This device disconnects all mobile phone frequencies within a three-meter radius by jamming the frequencies. With Bubl Space you can create your own bubble of silence, re-establishing a 'private sphere'.

Completely in tune with the mobile phone market, the BuBL Space is designed according to the latest trends and has been launched with an official marketing strategy and business plan. Of course this gadget can never be commercially produced. First of all, because law does not allow you to send out -radio- signals. All frequencies in the ether are owned either by the government or large phone companies, and of course, they can't afford it if someone starts jamming them. There even is a big commercial interest in the air, so it seems.

The presentation raised interesting questions about the fragile balance between our individual, private domain - and the freedom to act the way want - and public interests: apparently we cannot even decide what enters or doesn't enter into our private space.


2003 Christel Vesters

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