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Suspicious Data, The Urge to Control

Article by Yvette van Nierop about privacy and Jonah Brucker-Cohen's project 'Police State'.

Today, there is so much information that no one can really obtain a clear overview. Most of the information has no personal value for the majority of people, but part of that enormous data belt consist of what most of us consider to be private information. Not many of us would gladly show the world the status of our bank account of our medical files. That is personal, but it is also part of total body of existing information, floating around the same networks as the rest of the digital data.

The information society has opened up unprecedented possibilities. Some are an asset, like the possibility to gather information you need without even walking out the door. Other possibilities are not all that positive, like the possibility to abuse information with the result that privacy is breached.

Amazingly enough, privacy is hardly an issue for most people; it is just something most of us take for granted. The question that should be asked is where do you place the line. Sexual habits are considered private, but not when they go against the human rights of another individual. Nobody would normally expect you to share intimate details about health issues, but when you do not inform the insurance company it is unlawful. On the other hand, when your insurance company starts selling that very private information to others, it is an illegal breach of privacy again. Even before the appearance of the Internet and new technological methods of surveillance, the lines were vague. The appearance of a digital domain has made it even more complex. Still, the instances that distrust is vocalized, are scarce, even though it is known that within the digital realm, privacy is not very well protected.

Since 1998 there is an initiative that functions as a self-proclaimed monitor of privacy by selecting the worst public servant: The Big Brother Awards 1. Every year a jury selects the persons and / or organizations that deserve the honor of this Oscar-like prize. Simon Davies 2 developed the idea in Great Britain. Since then, the practice spread to many other countries. In Germany, Rena Tangens and Padeluun, two artists who have been working together since 1984, took up the idea. The approach of the Big Brother Awards is a good way to get media attention for the potential of information abuse. One of the winners in 2000 was the Loyalty Partner Gesellschaft für Kundenbindingsysteme, the biggest card-based bonus system in Germany. The main purpose of those kinds of customers' cards is mapping the shopping behavior of the owner and ultimately designing consumer profiles. This would be illegal, if not for the little contract with which the users give up their right to privacy in exchange for the profit they can collect by acquiring bonus points. For the company, the information that is gathered with those cards becomes merchandize on itself and the individual has no idea of what happens with that personal data. For Padeluun and Tangens, the Big Brother Award was not enough to expose this weakness in the information society. As another act of resistance, they designed a symbolic hack 3 on the card with the Privacy Card. The Privacy Card does not do anything, you do not hand it over at the counter and no information is stored on it or linked to it. It is a symbolic action and a call for the maintenance of personal privacy. The gesture works in two ways. It sends off a message to the company and it also sends a message to the inattentive consumer. Nobody forces anyone to hand over all kind of private information in exchange for some discount. If nobody used the card, the privacy issues involved would not be relevant. But the reality is, most people have an easy attitude when it comes to private information.

Right now, a trend is emerging that goes even further. On behalf of public security issues, the right on privacy is under attack. And it is not just that in more and more public areas, security cameras are placed. Ideas are formulated about taking DNA samples from all people and creating enormous national and international databases. Of course, the political advocates of these kinds of ideas assure us our privacy will be well protected and only bad people have anything to fear. They say the same about the surveillance of emails. The difference is that surveillance tools are already in use, checking every email that enters the United States network on special headwords. When one of those words is detected, the email goes straight to some government institute to be analyzed and interpreted so a decision can be made about the proper course of action. The Radical Software Group has created a variant on the kind surveillance software that the FBI uses to monitor data traffic. Jonah Brucker-Cohen used this software as the base of his art project Police State, where he visualizes data streams as motorized traffic. When the software detects a word on the network that corresponds with a word on a 'black list' of headwords, a code is send out and twenty little police cars simultaneously start to drive in a certain pattern. Different words get different codes. In this way Police State offers an insight in the electronic nerve system of the governmental security institutions. It also visualizes how a digital track can be found and followed.

The reason those new surveillance technologies are so easily accepted in society, can be explained by fear. There is that idea that the world is becoming an ever more dangerous place, that there are more and more criminals out there to harm us. And a criminal working for their own financial gain over the backs of honest people is one thing, the sudden eruption of international terrorism makes people feel even less secure. Just to feel protected against these kinds of threats, many people are prepared to hand in their privacy rights, and they expect others to do the same. The only problem is that it will just create a new matrix for new menaces on another level. And once given up, it will not be easy to win those privacy rights back again.

1. http://www.bigbrotherawards.org/uk2002/mediarelease.html, PRIVACY INTERNATIONAL, THE 4th UK BIG BROTHER AWARD, 2002

2. Simon Davies is Visiting Fellow in the Department of Law, University of Essex, United Kingdom; Visiting Fellow in Information Law at the University of Greenwich, London; Consultant Advisor to the British Medical Association; and Director General of Privacy International, London, UK

3. The term hacker seems to have been first adopted as a badge in the 1960s by the hacker culture surrounding TMRC and the MIT AI Lab. It is a term that represents a deep understanding of computer systems and networks and the ability to invent modify and refine such systems. It is a recombinant attitude through which promotes problem solving and creative instinct for it does not limit one's options to the possible. Moreover, it involves belief in freedom and voluntary mutual help". Form Technopolitics, http://www.thehacktivist.com/hacktivism.php, 2001

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