Over the past few months, artist Paolo Cirio has been quietly collecting pictures of high-ranking U.S. intelligence officials on social media. He then blew the photos up using High Definition Stencils (an OS graffiti technique he invented), spray-painted the reproductions of the misappropriated photos and plastered the copies onto the streets of cities like New York, Paris or London.
The individuals targeted in the Overexposed series are some of the officials responsible for programs of mass surveillance or for misleading the public about them. Their names are: Keith Alexander (NSA), John Brennan (CIA), Michael Hayden (NSA), Michael Rogers (NSA), James Comey (FBI), James Clapper (NSA), David Petraeus (CIA), Caitlin Hayden (NSC), and Avril Haines (NSA).
Cirio tracked down these portraits through open-source intelligence (OSINT), an information-gathering method that uses the internet, including social media, as an investigative tool. OSINT is used by government agencies, law enforcement, corporations and people involved in marketing. But activists and journalists are also routinely relying on it for their research. The portraits brought to light by Cirio are photographs and selfies of government officials taken in informal situations by civilians or lower ranking officers.
By making private portraits of members of the CIA and NSA part of the public domain, both through his street interventions and the detailed documentation of the research he published on his website, the artist invaded the private life of these government officials (though not as much as they might invade ours) and literally gave a face to U.S. intelligence services. The work holds a satirizing mirror to the people participating to operations of mass surveillance, commenting on the need for public accountability and pushing to its most uncomfortable limits the trends for 'overly mediated political personas.'
Cirio's political satire reverses the contemporary means of propaganda, exposing the extent to which a public image can be captured on camera and exploited by the very same systems that intelligence officials seek to control. Overexposed derides the watchers with embarrassing pictures over which they have lost control, effectively turning the tables on them and their advocacy of mass surveillance and lax privacy practices.
An exhibition of Overexposed is opening tomorrow at the NOME gallery in Berlin (keep your eyes peeled for their programme in the future because they work with some of the most thought-provoking artists engaging with digital technologies) so i contacted the artist to get more details about the series:
Hi Paolo! To be honest, when i first read the description of the project, i was expecting some blurry portraits and no name at all. But in the series you go full on: the individuals are very recognizable and their identity is given. Do you expect to get into trouble with this work?
The legal question is not really about the officials because they are public figure, so the use of their photos fall under parody laws and free expression. The controversy is actually about the ownership of those photos and from where they were obtained, in most of the cases the selfies were taken by civilians, random people or acquaintances of the intelligence officials. On my website you can find the original photos where you have the individuals together with officials in the snapshot taken with smartphones and uploaded directly on the social media. I think so far they still don't know that their pictures ended up on public walls around the world. I don't know how they will react yet, the project was published just a few weeks ago.
And since you actually have a history of getting into trouble with your work, could you explain us which part these (mis)adventures, legal threats, cease & desist play into your work?
It's not just about getting in troubles, instead it's about generating legal reactions that reveal contradictions on the inadequacy or abuse of the laws that I want to criticize. In same cases, confronting the subjects of my performances on the legal terrain lets everyone understand which are the actual power structures that generate particular social conditions.
According to the press release, you used your HD Stencils graffiti technique and spray-painted hi-re reproductions of the photos onto public walls. How do you select the locations for these street interventions?
I paste these reproduction of photos mainly in popular street art locations, where people often take pictures that end up on the social media again. This exposes these officials even more through having their pictures in recirculation on the social network with the glamour of the street art.
And how do you go from street graffiti to art gallery? Do you feel that your work, and these stencils in particular, gets another meaning or has to be framed in another way when you change the exhibition context from public space to white wall space?
Beyond the public art interventions made for a wider public, I'm interested in formalizing the pieces as pop art and appropriation art, bringing them in the realm of the art world, which for me it is also a distribution system. Eventually they became historical portraits of figures that mark our time of expansion of cyber-warfare and astonishing programs of mass surveillance, which hopefully we will only remember as an awful war against civil society of the past. Also my technique HD Stencils offers very particular aesthetic qualities that can be fully appreciated with maximum perfection of the works made for the art gallery.
The exhibition Overexposed opens at the NOME gallery in Berlin on 22 May and remains on view until 20 July.
A detailed catalogue of the show is available for download (PDF.)
Previous mentions of Paolo Cirio's work on the blog: Unstable Territory. Borders and identity in contemporary art, Cultural Hijack, Notes from WJ-Spots Brussels, History and future of artistic creation on the Internet and The Digital Now - 'Drones / Birds: Princes of Ubiquity'.
Compared to my previous post (Eyes from a distance. Personal encounters with military drones), the talks from the panel Tracking Drones, Reporting Lives zoomed out from the personal perspective and brought together a data journalist, a documentary director and an artist whose work examines the drone issue:
Data journalist Jack Serle, who works at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London, as part of the Covert Drone War research team, is involved in the Naming the Dead project which attempts to reveal the names of the civilians and militants killed by the drones in Pakistan since 2004. Film director Tonje Hessen Schei is currently showing in theaters across the world DRONE, a documentary that focuses on the CIA drone war. Artist, musician and researcher Dave Young presented The Reposition Matrix, a workshop series that investigated the military-industrial production and use of military drones through collaborative open-source intelligence and cartographic processes.
The panel was moderated by Marc Garrett, director and founder (together with Ruth Catlow) of the community and art space Furtherfield. In his intro to the panel, Garrett reminded the audience of the role that artists have played in exploring the dark sides of drones, sometimes even anticipating their power as the video BIT Plane demonstrates. In this work (shown at the Furtherfield exhibition Movable Borders: Here Come the Drones! two years ago), Natalie Jeremijenko and Kate Rich from the Bureau of Inverse Technology operate a radio-controlled model airplane over the Silicon Valley. By filming the aerial views, the BIT Plane can be seen as a precursor to the emerging DIY surveillance video enabled by the new availability of drones.
The talk of the first panelist, Jack Serle, focused on the BIJ's Covert Drone War, a research aimed at providing a full dataset of all known US drone attacks in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.
When the investigation started, there was online one version of drone attacks and it was coming from Washington. Their official line was that drones were surgically precise and that they were so efficient that no civilians were killed in the strikes:
It's this surgical precision, the ability, with laser-like focus, to eliminate the cancerous tumor called an al-Qaida terrorist while limiting damage to the tissue around it, that makes this counterterrorism tool so essential.
But the data coming from Pakistan quickly demonstrated that the reality was otherwise.
BIJ's work is based on open source data such as media reports, NGO reports, court documents, information leaked by governmental sources, accounts from eyewitnesses, etc. The observation of this data enables also the BIJ to pick out patterns revealing some uncomfortable facts about the war on terror.
For example the BIJ noticed that sometimes a strike would hit a building in Pakistan and that another strike would be launched on the same building 20 to 40 minutes later. The same pattern was observed elsewhere. It reveals that when the CIA was hitting a building, they were in fact waiting for the rescue team (made of both civilians and militants) to come and pick up people who had been injured in the strike. This is obviously a very bloody tactic.
Another pattern observed involved strikes hitting funerals. The CIA exploit a local custom: local commanders often attend a man's funeral. But of course the people who take part in the funeral and were injured or killed by the drones are not necessarily militants. Many of them are civilians.
There's more details about these two practices in Chris Woods and Christina Lamb's article CIA tactics in Pakistan include targeting rescuers and funerals.
By gathering numbers, names and other evidences, the Naming the Dead project counters secrecy and anonymity. Concealing as much as possible is a key element of the drone program, it enables it to continue its activities unquestioned.
Serle explained that with the Drone War Project, the BIJ doesn't want to morally judge the technology per se. Instead the work of the team aims to bring transparency and enable people to make changes.
Next in the panel was Tonje Hessen Schei, the director of DRONE which was screened later in the evening (and which i'd recommend you see.)
The film looks at drone under different angles: the families of Pakistani victims of drones, the human rights advocates and activists, the drone pilots (namely Brandon Bryan) and the vast and incredibly lucrative industry which interests lay in keeping this war going on forever and ever.
The director talked about the relationships between the entertainment industry and the military, her disappointment at Obama who had promised to close Guantanamo Bay and who's now sending drones to kill people, etc.
One of her main concerns regards Europe which knows what is happening and remains silent. The United States is setting a worrying new standard of warfare with the drone program and it's only a question of time before we see Russia, Iran, China and other countries use drones to go after anyone they regard as a threat to their country. When that time has come, how will we be able to counter it? How are we going to say that the practice is illegal when we've done nothing to stop the United States?
Drones have changed warfare and its future. They've become the new normal even though there has never been any proper debate about the ethical, moral and legal challenges they present.
A survey found that 66% of the U.S. people is in favor of drone strikes. Perhaps the percentage would me much lower if people were actually presented with all the facts. There has been a wide media coverage of the DRONE documentary in both the UK and Norway but the film is still very much under the radar in the U.S.
The trailer of the documentary is very catchy and spectacular. It's part of the strategy of the film director who wanted to relate to mass culture and appeal to the broadest audience possible.
The last speaker in the panel was artist Dave Young who made a series of valid points:
- The war on terror operate often in deserts. This is what Deleuze calls a 'smooth space', a surface that can be interrupted, moved and reconfigured without leaving any trace.
- Young also talked about The Reposition Matrix, a series of workshops dedicated the use of cybernetic military systems such as drones and the Disposition Matrix, a dynamic database of intelligence that produces kill-lists for the US Department of Defense. Working together, workshop participants developed a 'cartography of control': a map of the organisations, locations, and trading networks that play a role in the production of military drone technologies. The artist explained how some of the information used in the workshop came from unexpected sources: such as google satellite maps where sometimes the shadow of a drone would appear on a view or facebook where many soldiers post photos of their life. So in the background of selfies or group portraits, one can glimpse the base where they are working.
- During World War II, Norman Wiener worked on a research project at MIT on the automatic aiming and firing of anti-aircraft guns and guided missile technology. He studied how a missile changed its flight path through the use of advanced electronics. What intrigued him was the principle of feedback that was used, i.e. the missile gave feedback regarding its position and flight path towards its target. It then received instructions for small adjustments to its flight path in order to further stabilize it and to arrive at its target, etc. (via) His research was abandoned after the war but the concept of continuous feedback between the missile system and its environment can actually be extended to other systems and this eventually led him to formulate cybernetics.
- Young's account of the tactics deployed by the U.S. army during the Vietnam war was equally fascinating. Some of the technology does indeed foreshadow the use of drones. One was a 'people sniffer', a detector that could 'smell' human urine and sweat and thus detect enemy soldiers in hidden positions. This Operation Snoopy (because that was its name) and other tactics are presented in the 1969 video Bugging the Battlefield
- another important point Dave Young made is that the military is always trying to remove the agency of the soldier. A soldier can be disobedient, he or she can question an order or strategy.
Previous posts about the Drones event: Eyes from a distance. Personal encounters with military drones and The Grey Zone. On the (il)legitimacy of targeted killing by drones.
More notes from the Drone event organized by the Disruption Lab Network in Berlin a couple of weeks ago (the first post, The Grey Zone. On the (il)legitimacy of targeted killing by drones, is over here.) Eyes from a distance. On Drone-systems and their strategies brought together a former drone operator, investigative journalists, criminal law researchers, artists and critical thinkers to reflect on the following issues:
What is the politics and the regime of power beyond drone-systems? Which are the consequences both on militant networks and civil society of an increasing automatism of conflicts? Can we track down the hidden strategies that move target-killings? Can we understand better drone technology?
The symposium was brilliant. For many reasons: the impeccable choice of speakers, the variety of perspectives, the stimulating Q&A with the audience. But i think i should salute the fact that many women participated to the conference, both as speakers and as members of the public. This will hopefully be a inspiration to conference organizers who believe that technology is a 'man thing.'
But let's get to the talks of the first evening. Two of them were given by people who have or used to have a direct, daily experience of drones.
i was incredibly moved by Asma al-Ghul's video contribution. She is a journalist and author from Gaza who writes about human rights, social issues and is never afraid to openly criticize Palestinian ruling authorities. She has won numerous awards for her work, including the international award for courage in journalism. On August 3, 2014, at least nine members of her family were killed in an Israeli airstrike. She was not allowed to get out of Gaza (more about that below) and sent a video to tell us about everyday life under drone surveillance and sometimes attacks.
The other speaker was Brandon Bryant, a former U.S. Air Force pilot who joined the Predator drone Program in 2006 and left in 2011 when he started questioning the ethics of the program and his own role as a soldier. He has since shared with the world his battle with PTSD, his guilt over killing people and his concerns about the U.S. drone operations.
Bryant also recently set up Project Red Hand to expose mechanisms of corruption, manipulations and wrong doings.
You can watch Bryant's presentation on YouTube but here's a small summary.
Brandon Bryant. Photo Ethan Levitas for GQ
When the GQ article came out in 2013, it was titled Confessions of a Drone Warrior. The word 'warrior' offended him. Drone technology made him feel like a coward, not a warrior. He could kill a human being at the other end of the world at the click of a button. 'What's more cowardly than that?'
And since the technology is used by the U.S.A., a country supposed to be the most powerful in the world, then he believes that the U.S. is the worst type of coward. Instead of leading by example, the U.S. is acting like the bully in the playground.
When you're a drone operator, you're a low class sniper. No one respects you in the military. You don't have to do the hard stuff. Yet, you are given the responsibility to take someone else's life without really being given the information necessary to understand what's going on and who exactly you've just murdered. You are told to look for people doing 'nefarious things', but we have no understanding of these people's culture. The first time Bryant had to shoot, he was told to fire at 3 individuals simply for the fact that they were carrying weapons.
Bryant also believes that as citizens we have responsibilities as well. Our duty is to raise our voice whenever there is a concern about the involvement of our government in the drone program. And if you're not American and think this doesn't really concern you, do check out his video, towards the end he describes the role of Europe and in particular Germany in making the drone operations possible.
Bryant's talk was very moving, especially when he revealed that 'back home' people don't want to hear his story. His brave decision to speak out and denounce the lack of ethics of the drone program was not seen with a kind eye, he even received threats from friends and colleagues who said he deserved to be shot for raising his voice.
Israel is the world's number one drone exporter. It has been experimenting the technology with deadly consequences on Palestinians for years so it wasn't surprising that the DNL had invited two writers from Gaza to Berlin to share their experience with us. Unfortunately, it was also no surprise to learn that neither Ebaa Rezeq nor Asma al-Ghul had been allowed to get out of Gaza.
However, Asma al-Ghul sent a video to tell us about life under drones in Gaza. Alghoul couldn't come to Berlin because of the closure of the borders. She is blacklisted for some unknown reason (like half the population of Gaza, she explained) and wasn't allowed to go beyond the Erez checkpoint controlled by Israel.
Gazans are very familiar with drones. They have lived through 3 wars in 8 years and even a child is able to recognize the arrival of a drone. They are so much part of everyday life that people in Gaza are giving the drones nicknames such as as 'Buzzer' or 'Zanana', onomatopoeia that come from the ugly sounds they make in the sky. In fact, drones have taken such a part of people's culture that they started calling 'zananas', the intelligence men who follow people or simply nosy people.
Drones cause serious stress and anxiety among the population. A drone evokes war and death. Once you hear it coming, you brace yourself for a bombardment and the death of people. On a side note, it's impossible to ignore their presence if you are watching TV because they ruin the transmission. "Every Israeli aircraft is dreadful,' she explained. "Apaches, F-16s and drones. Especially the F-16, when they break the sonic barrier and make severe explosions in the sky. "
Some Israeli drones are used for reconnaissance purposes, others fire missiles. Some do both.
"It's been six months since the war ended,' she says and war is still inside of us. People keep asking us whether there's a war coming. Since the end of the war, 40 people who live by the border-line areas have been killed by drones. One of them was a resistance fighter. Over 60 boats have been destroyed. 66 civilians including fishermen were detained by the Israeli forces in the post-war six-month period.
These statistics show there's no peace, there's no real truce and people feel they are threatened all the time."
A study recently released by Aid agencies in Gaza shows that over 100,000 Palestinians are still displaced. The situation is catastrophic. Gazans live in complete depression, in addition to unemployment and poverty.
Young people still dream of change, of reconciliation, of a new life to be born.
In addition to the domestic obstacles which cripple the population, Gaza is also facing political arrests and lack of speech freedom for journalists. The West Bank is not any better than in Gaza. Any journalist who criticizes president Mahmoud Abbas on Facebook can get into trouble, for example. Even the political reconciliation is far away now. It's the first anniversary of the Beach Camp accord this month and nothing has been applied.
The next event of the Disruption Network Lab will take place on May 29-30 in Berlin.
Previously: The Grey Zone. On the (il)legitimacy of targeted killing by drones.
Last week, i was in Berlin for the talks and screenings organized by the Disruption Network Lab, a platform of events and research focused on art, hacktivism and disruption. DNL opened its program with Eyes from a Distance. On Drone-Systems and their Strategies, a conference that explored the politics and the regime of power beyond drone-systems. A couple of the talks have already been uploaded online. They will all be there eventually and in the meantime i'm going to dutifully post my notes from the conference.
Starting with the brilliant panel of the first evening. The Grey Zone. On the (il)legitimacy of targeted killing by drones, moderated by journalist Laura Lucchini, explored drone strikes under the perspectives of an investigative journalist, a criminal law researcher, an activist and a blogger/journalist who lives in Gaza under the constant surveillance of the Israeli drones (more about her in a later post but go ahead if you're curious...)
The grey zone is of course the dangerous, blurry area where drone attacks operate. The practice of targeted killing by drones raises many questions: "How many civilians have been killed as collateral damage during these strikes?" "And even if we're talking about militants, how can the killings be justified when there has been judicial supervision? "If these drones can reach their targets anywhere, then how is the battlefield defined?" "87 countries (and counting) are now equipped with military drones, which they use mostly for surveillance. Only 3 countries use drones for targeted killings: the U.S., Israel and the UK. Where will this stop?" "And if these targeted killings are illegal, why does Europe keep silent?"
The first panelist was John Goetz, an American investigative journalist and author based in Berlin. He wrote, together with Christian Fuchs, the book Geheimer Krieg (Secret War) which reveals how the war on terror is secretly conducted from covert U.S. bases in Germany.
Goetz's presentation attempted to reconstruct one day of a drone attack in Somalia and as the narrative unfolded, we got to hear about Germany's involvement into these military operations, the way the U.S. gather intelligence in foreign territories and how innocents end up being caught in the line, if not directly targeted due to inaccurate information.
As he explained at the conference (and as an article in The Intercept further confirmed), drone strikes wouldn't be possible without the support of Germany. The Germans might not launch the attacks themselves but they provide intelligence and they coordinate the strikes that target suspected terrorists in Africa and the Middle East, but that also kill civilians.
The U.S. drone war in Africa is controlled from U.S. bases in Germany, namely Ramstein and Stuttgart. Germany is also responsible for gathering human intelligence. There are many Somali immigrants and asylum seekers in Germany and as they arrive, they are asked about streets, shops, location of members of Al-Shabaab, etc. Any information that could be used by the "War on Terror" is immediately relayed to U.S. intelligence officers.
The second speaker was Chantal Meloni, a criminal lawyer and the author of Is there a Court for Gaza? A Test Bench for International Justice, a book about the crimes perpetrated during the Operation Cast Lead against the Gaza Strip.
Meloni put the issue of targeted killing by drones into a legal framework.
Since 2004, up to 5,500 people have been killed by drone strikes in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan. These are countries the U.S. is not officially at war with.
Killing has supplanted capture as the centerpiece of the U.S. counter terrorism strategy. Opposition to drone killing is growing but it is not as effective as the opposition to torture was. A reason for that might be that the legal framework for drone strikes is more complex.
Drone strikes have escalated under the Obama administration and they are characterized by a lack of transparency: states don't disclose who has been killed, why and who are the collateral casualties. Obama doesn't disclose the identity of the people on the kill list. There is no public presentation of evidence, nor any judicial oversight. The level of opacity is actually ridiculous. The little information we have is provided by media reports, leaks or testimonies.
An analysis by the human rights organization Reprieve found that US operators targeting 41 men have killed an estimated 1,147 people. So who are the 1,106 individuals? We don't know, most of them remain unnamed. What is sure is that the collateral damage shows that drones are not as 'surgically precise' as the U.S. claims.
Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown professor and former Pentagon official under President Obama, sums up the situation: "Right now we have the executive branch making a claim that it has the right to kill anyone, anywhere on Earth, at any time, for secret reasons based on secret evidence, in a secret process undertaken by unidentified officials."
We associate the start of the drone attacks with the U.S. and their post-9/11 counter-terrorist strategy but the military use of drones started long before that, in Israel, a country that has the longest track record for targeted killing (aka "targeted prevention") of Palestinians. Targeted killings can be defined as the state-sponsored practice of eliminating enemies outside the territory.
Nowadays, most of the drones sold around the world are used for surveillance purposes but it has been forecast that in 10 years every country will have armed drones.
60% of the world export of drones come from Israel. Israeli manufacturer Elbit is producing the best selling model: the Hermes drone which was used in the latest attacks on Gaza. 37% of the killings that occurred during the attacks on Gaza can be attributed to drones.
One can see the appeal of drones for governments and policy makers: they are relatively cheap, they are claimed to be 'surgically precise', they make it easy to kill without any risk and they allow the army to reach their target in areas that would otherwise be difficult to reach. But do their use comply with the martial law?
Targeted killings are generally unlawful under international laws.
The laws under war time are more permissible regarding the use of lethal forces. However, the right to use armed force is not unlimited. Civilians, for example, need to be protected from direct attacks.
States have thus expanded the concept of war on the battlefield as to include situations that should in fact be regulated by law enforcement agencies. The 'war on terror' is a total war for which no end nor boundaries is conceived. The number of enemies is infinite too. Governments justify the use of lethal forces by claiming that this is 'anticipatory self-defense' but, under the laws applicable under war time, the self-defense argument allows killing only when all other solutions, such as capture, have been exhausted. Most targeted killings outside the battlefield constitute thus premeditated deprivations of life, violations of the right to life.
When killings cannot be justified they constitute war crimes and other states have the duty to investigate and not leave dormant this huge accountability vacuum.
Tactical Technology Collective, Unseen War (Exposing the Invisible)
The final speaker was Marek Tuszynski, the co-founder of Tactical Tech, an organization 'dedicated to the use of information in activism.'
Tuszynski's talk focused on a series of short documentaries called Exposing the Invisible. The films look at the investigative work of journalists, artists, reporters, activists and technologists who explore publicly accessible data in order counter mainstream reports and go further than traditional journalistic investigations. One of the documentaries, Unseen War examines the physical, moral and political invisibility of US drone strikes in Pakistan.
He argued that counter powers should build their own intelligence practice.
The operations in Pakistan might be located far away but they concern us because
But there's no reason to be passive, we need to protect ourselves because surveillance doesn't require machines flying above our heads, we are already providing a vast quantity of valuable indormation when we use social media and that data can be used to analyse our digital behaviour. To protect yourself from intrusion to privacy, check out Tactical Tech's Security in-a-Box website.
Image on the homepage via BBC.
Berlin-based artists Christoph Wachter & Mathias Jud have installed WLAN / WiFi mesh network with can antennas on the roofs of the Academy of Arts and the Swiss Embassy, both located in the heart of "NSA's Secret Spy Hub" in the city. The network is at the disposal of passersby who would like to communicate anonymously and even send messages to operatives of the NSA and GCHQ intelligence who might lurk inside the nearby British Embassy and Embassy of the United States.
The installation is a direct reference to Edward Snowden's revelations that the U.S.' NSA, the UK's GCHQ and other key partners were operating a network of electronic spy posts hidden within the fabric of diplomatic buildings around the world.
Wachter and Jud's DIY can antennas don't hide themselves. They stand in plain sight between the camouflaged US and British listening posts and their network stretches over the administrative district of Berlin.
At the point at which the interception of Angela Merkel's cell phone occurred, the open network of anonymous communication options now unfolds as a legal and legitimate response to rigid restrictions on our freedoms and hidden, secret surveillance.
Messages can be sent to the intelligence agencies on the frequencies that are intercepted by the NSA and GCHQ. These personal messages include activist and political contributions, ironic disclosure of embarrassing intimacy, and calls for resistance. Many appeals are aimed directly at the surveillance operatives asking them to switch sides and become whistleblowers.
Mathias Jud was kind enough to answer my questions about the installation:
Hi Mathias! How did you get the authorizations to install the antennas? By the way, did you ask for authorisations?
The whole region is under special protection as it is next to the Parliament and the German Federal Chancellery. Surveillance, Police and Security are omnipresent. During our build up of the antenna tower a special Police helicopter with a pivoting surveillance cam was circling above us.
We also asked the Academy of Arts that is located next to the US embassy at the Brandenburg Gate. (The Academy of Arts is not an university, but an international 'master' academy of artists that was funded by a former Prussian king, and an art museum and collection.) Klaus Staeck, the President of the Academy and himself an active political graphic designer was very fond of the idea and promoted it together with Birgit Hein, the chief of the section Visual Arts.
In the last year we spent a lot of time discussing this project to be able to realise it. It is completely legal, and has the approval of the Swiss ambassador, the Swiss foreign office. The members of the Academy of the Arts discussed this project in their annual meeting and voted in favour of it. The German Federal Chancellery has been informed by the Swiss embassy.
Although our constitutional rights are restricted in the non-protest zone in the government district, there is no restriction of digital communication. With our qaul.net network that is the technological basis of the "Can you hear me?" installation we can experience a completely user-based network without any service provider as gate keeper and regulatory force in the network.
You organize guided tours. What do you show people exactly?
Guided tours are a possibility to discuss the project with us and to experience the special rules in the government district and the restricted zones in front of the embassies. We experience together the mesh network, and the area. We show how we built the antennas, discuss the network, the artwork and the philosophy behind it.
You also encourage people to send messages to operatives of the NSA and GCHQ intelligence, is that correct? how do you know how to reach them?
There is a special veneered wall at the US embassy, clearly discovered by infrared cameras where, according to the Snowden files, the listening post of the NSA is located. The GCHQ has a white radome where, according to the Snowden files, the listening post of the British is located.
Our antenna-tower on the roof of the Academy of the Arts is right in the middle of these listening posts and has a clear connection to them.
All messages in the WIFI mesh network are sent unencrypted to all participants in the network.
See also: Julian Oliver and Daniil Vasiliev's PRISM: The Beacon Frame. Speculative NSA Network Surveillance Equipment which was swiftly censored.)
The Transparency Grenade! A name like that was bound to get my attention.
It might look like a Soviet F1 Hand Grenade, but what the Transparency Grenade contains is 'just' a tiny computer, a microphone and a powerful wireless antenna. No explosive then! Except maybe the information that the device is capable of blasting to the world. The Transparency Grenade fights against the lack of corporate and governmental transparency. It captures network traffic and audio at the site of closed meetings and anonymously streams the data to a dedicated server where email fragments, HTML pages, images and voice are extracted and displayed on an online map.
The device was created by Critical Engineer and artist Julian Oliver, author of works such as a modified analog colour television able to capture and screen images downloaded by people on local wireless hotspots, a wall plug that messes with the news read by other people on wireless hotspots and a software platform for replacing billboard advertisements with art in real-time. Now i'm left wondering why i didn't try and interview him for the blog before...
Hi Julian! What strikes me with your latest project is the way it looks. It is miles away from the 'bastard in beige' newstweek. Why did you decide to give the work such a threatening design?
I gave the Transparency Grenade this design to signify some of the conversation around cyber warfare, 'information weapons' and the Cyber Soldier divisions marching out from national defense budgets worldwide. It can be considered a functional weapon in a symbolically representative container.
We've seen the transformative power of network-leveraged leaking in the last decade, first with the incumbent Cryptome and then much more recently with Wikileaks. The very idea of an immaterial explosion with the power to shake the walls of institutions, businesses and political cultures - moving matter and people in its wake - is naturally attractive, not only in the conceptual sense.
The volatility of information in networked, digital contexts itself frames a precedent for clamouring (and often unrealistic) attempts to contain it. One could even say it's this desperate fear of the leak that produces images like my grenade, images that will continue to take violent forms in popular culture, journalism and Presidential speeches in time. In fact the metaphor of a Transparency Grenade is itself not new, first used publicly by Mike Taylor in the Observer, a few months after I drew up this project. A timely coincidence.
Most importantly however it is the hyperbole and fear around containing these volatile records, of the cyber burglary, that increasingly yields assumptive logics that ultimately shape how we use networks and think about the right to information. Just as record companies claim billions in losses due to file sharing, the fear of the leak is being actively exploited by law makers to afford organisations greater opacity and thus control.
This anxiety, this 'network insecurity', impacts not just upon the freedom of speech but the felt instinct to speak at all. All of a sudden letting public know what's going on inside a publicly funded organisation is somehow 'wrong' -Bradley Manning a sacrificial lamb to that effect. Meanwhile civil servants and publicly-owned companies continue to make decisions behind guarded doors that impact the lives of many, whether human or other animal.
All we have left from the Bin Laden assassination, for instance, is that photo from The Situation Room, a bunch of contradictory reports of what actually happened and a body being eaten by sea lice somewhere in the Indian Ocean - or was it the Indian Ocean? How much did that assassination cost American tax payers? Of course we wonder what was said in that room! Somehow such a significant event has now been reduced to a little black box and scrapbook..
I believe quality journalism has never been so important as it is today yet at the same it's never been so threatened, both in and out of a democratic context. Given great reductions to the freedom of the press recently it's only natural that we see them adopt guerilla tactics - especially given new discovery vectors opened up by digital communications. It should come as no surprise many of their tactics will be technically illegal or even ethically corrupt!
As we saw with the News of the World scandal, they are competing within an economy where news has capital value, itself a deep and driving flaw. Under such conditions, and baited with possibility, news corporations will increasingly look for points of exploit with exit strategies (and/or apologies) prepared.
With the Transparency Grenade I wanted to capture these important tensions in an iconic, hand-held package.
Has anyone tested it in some corporate or governmental place? Is this something you plan to do one day?
Even if I planned to I certainly wouldn't mention it here!
It is perhaps worth mentioning however that from the software side I haven't implemented anything new. Network packet capture has been around for decades, digital audio streaming for quite some time and TCP stream reconstruction also. Rather, I've wrapped up a variety of command line utilities in scripts that allow for the whole thing to work, both on the device and the server. An upcoming project 'Covert Peripherals' will explore this, as a canvas for productive paranoia. You'll never trust your mouse again..
Because of the simplicity of the design it is relatively trivial for me to port the Transparency Grenade back-end to the Android platform, something I'm working on currently thanks to a generous hardware donation from Australian based developer Scott Robinson. This will allow activists (or those simply sick of the relative opacity of their organisation) to deploy Transparency Grenade like functionality on their rooted Android phone and send the data over an encrypted channel via their GSM provider to a publicly available map, displaying the detonation as data from that site.
I will not offer the public map interface and data mining parts as a service (that'd be illegal, wouldn't it!). I will however provide code for people to install on their servers and or study.
Who'd be your dream 'target'? Who do you think has secrets worth unveiling?
Governments aside I certainly think we need a great deal more transparency in the Agricultural sector. A lot of effort is being exerted, including laws written, to ensure we don't know where our food comes from, alongside the impact of that food on the environment and our bodies. A year ago Senator Jim Norman of Florida proposed a blanket ban on video or photography of farms, even from the road! We have to wonder why. The meat industry is especially aggressive in this regard, their lobbies very powerful.
The arms industry, the rampant privatisation of publicly owned infrastructure, pharmaceutical industries, are also increasingly opaque in their business dealings. Why are cures, for instance, such highly guarded secrets? Symptom relief is often vastly more profitable.
What has been the reaction to the Transparency Grenade so far? Newstweek garnered much media attention and i suspect the TG, because of its functions but again also because of the way it looks, might distress and worry some people.
I've heard words like 'gorgeous' often enough for fearful responses to not dominate, thankfully! We had around 2000 people to the exhibition opening of our show
I wanted it to look elegant, a bottle of high-class perfume, as much as a weapon. Thanks to Berlin-based Susanne Stauch, who modeled the metal components in high-grade sterling silver, that aesthetic carries across I think, at least when you see it in the flesh.
I'd like to add that my conversations with writer and journalist Marta Peirano greatly nourished my thinking around this project, this interview alongside.
Thank you Julian!
The Transparency Grenade was created for the Weise7 Studio exhibition, curated by Transmediale 2012 Director, Kristoffer Gansing.. You can visit it at Labor Berlin, Haus Der Kulturen der Welt, until Feb 20, 2012.