Sniff, Scrape, Crawl… {on privacy, surveillance and our shadowy data-double}


photograph/gif by OjodePez

Editor: Renée Turner
Publisher: Open Mute Press
Piet Zwart Institute / Creating 010
Master Media Design and Communication
ISBN: Paperback 978-1-906496-81-4 eBook 978-1-906496-82-1

Sniff, Scrape, Crawl… {on privacy, surveillance and our shadowy data-double}

Today, the border between the public and private is porous. Unlike the ominous spectre of surveillance depicted in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, today’s methods of information gathering are much more subtle, ‘friendly’, and woven into the fabric of our everyday lives. Customer cards give instant access to discounts, while shopping habits are simultaneously registered. Through behavioural tracking, Amazon tells us which books we might like, Google uniquely tailors its advertising and search results, and connects us to people with similar music tastes.

Immersed in social media, we commit to binding contracts and agree to ‘terms of use’ that would baffle a lawyer, if anyone actually bothered to read the legalese. Nonetheless, having sealed the blind deal with a click, we Twitter our subjectivities in less than 140 characters, contact our long lost friends on Facebook, and mobile-upload our geotagged videos on YouTube. Where once surveillance technologies were associated with the agencies of the government and the military, the web has fostered a participatory and less optically driven means of both monitoring and monetizing our intimately lived experiences. And all of this invisible yet pervasive surveillance is seductively packaged in the language of sociability. Capitalising on our gregarious nature, we are encouraged to share it, like it, tweet it and retweet it. After all, it’s about us – who we are, what we want and most importantly, how they can best profit from delivering their coveted commodities and services to us.

A silent listener to our streaming confessions, the ambient social network envelops itself around our rituals, banalities and routines and traces the specificities of our dataset, or rather our shadowy data-double. Crawling and scraping, it creates a portrait of not only who we are as individuals, but also our demographic character, status and potential future self. Just as our data-double grows exponentially through these infinite feedback loops, the debate on privacy also proliferates. While discussions on the value of public space and the commons have regrettably waned, privacy has become the zone of contention for lawyers, large corporations, governments and individuals, who all have much at stake.

Sniff, Scrape, Crawl…. is the result of trying to make sense of these debates. It began as collaborative research between the Master Media Design and Communication course at the Piet Zwart Institute and Creating 010 Hogeschool Rotterdam. In the Fall of 2011, the Institute hosted a series of workshops, lectures and screenings. As a follow-up, students, staff and guest lecturers presented their results in the form of two panels at ISEA, Istanbul 2011. This book consolidates these research efforts. Bringing together artists, programmers, theorists, students and staff, contributions vary in tone and approach, and critically responds, at times even irreverently, to our idiosyncratic relation to privacy.

In My Meta Is Your Data, Nicolas Malevé interrogates contexts of interpretation to illustrate their importance. Beginning with the rapid consolidation of the web under a few large corporations, Malevé explains how systemic ambiguity is exploited to coerce users into submitting more data. He questions how social platforms are integrated into activist practices, and points to potential problems if corporate fidelity is swayed. Finally, he maps the perfect storm, where Web 2.0 network topologies and economies come together with Internet Service Providers to potentially monitor and control user access to data. Rather than ending apocalyptically, Malevé points to projects like OpenStreetMap as another possible model, which harnesses its own context of interpretation through an alternative working methodology and mode of user governance.

The Discrete Dialogue Network is a project that also represents an alternative to online social networks. Working with simple stickers, mobile phones and a voice messaging system, the project operates like a Situationist psychogeographical dérive, where voice, story and place are intimately woven together. Unlike a conventional online network, nothing is tracked or monitored. Instead, The Discrete Dialogue Network relies on chance encounters and the specificities of a particular place to evoke personal associations. Spread across the city by individual anonymous users, messages are left like traces of graffiti that form loosely knit connections tying geography and narrative across an urban landscape.

Of course the distinction between the online and physical world has never been strictly divided. The ambient social network absorbs us, physical spaces collapse into the digital, and the other way around. In Future Guides for Cities, Michelle Teran highlights precisely this seamless flow between registers. Online maps and self-generated media are archival material for her explorations of the tension between public and private space. Tracking a single user’s YouTube uploads, she oscillates between voyeur and stalker. While navigating across her computer screen to eventually arriving physically at her destination, she reflects on the history of domestic space, fears of home invasion, the homogenising forces shaping today’s public life, and the possibilities of encountering the stranger in the city.

Just as algorithms might create an opportunity for meeting strangers, the question arises of how they might shape and influence our destiny. Amy Suo Wu’s contribution is a somewhat playful, speculative and dystopic depiction of precisely this scenario. A short piece of fiction, Benji ™ is the imagined biography of the child of Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, and his wife, Anne Wojcicki, the co-founder of, a genomics and biotechnology company. Pitched somewhere between the rhetoric of entrepreneurialism, new age mysticism and biotech hype, Benji is larger than life, a self-made man and the inventor of a business empire. Matching careful DNA analysis with online advertising, Benji serves up the ultimate in ‘search’, where rendered results are not only the perfect mirror of the self, but also a prediction of the self yet to come. In this eerie dream-like scenario, market indicators are transformed into modern soothsayers in whom all trust can be placed.

But what if users don’t want to become one with their data double, and would rather disconnect their individual profile from their specific dataset? Anonymity has become the exalted answer to the dilemma. From 4chan’s foster child, Anonymous, to the practice of IP address cloaking, to those who would rather dwell in the shelter of the darknet, the desire to remain unidentified appears strong. Moving beyond the hype, in The Spectre of Anonymity, Seda Gürses looks at the historical uses of anonymity through traditional folksongs and their relation to authorship and the collective. She questions how these dynamics function online in connection to an individual’s dataset. Finally, analysing anonymity as both a technical and strategic device, she elaborates on its strengths and vulnerabilities in order to show there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

Taking a completely different direction, Inge Hoonte’s Dear Philip E. Agre, are confessional in tone and reflect on the digital traces of Agre, his writings and the fragile link between people. Having disappeared somewhere between 2008 and 2009, mass appeals were circulated across the web. Finally in 2010 Agre was found, but at his request his whereabouts remain undisclosed. Nevertheless, his essays linger online, and despite not having published in years, his work remains seminal within the research and discourse on digital privacy. Touching on his various writings, Hoonte digresses into anecdote and personal stories to speak about the subtle connections between people, places and random encounters. In her correspondence, the network appears everywhere. Referencing Agre’s essay, Welcome to the Always-on World, Hoonte acknowledges: “It’s becoming harder and harder to turn off, to be offline, and to be truly alone.” The letters are like messages in a bottle set adrift; ultimately they reveal more about the author than the imagined recipient.

This open-ended desire to connect is exactly what the social network exploits and folds back into an infinite set of feedback loops to produce the information economy. Steve Rushton’s essay delves further into this system, which perversely thrives on the activity of its users as self-performing subjects. Working across a broad range of examples from reality television to social networks, Rushton wonders what this state of perpetual presentation and performing is doing, meaning how it fuels the mechanisms of commerce and shapes our consciousness. Starting with media activist critique from the sixties and seventies generated by Radical Software, Ant Farm and others, he explains how the a gap has closed between the producer, consumer and spectacle. Instead, we are living in a world where the commodity and the performer are one.

Related to the self-performing subject, in her essay Birgit Bachler speaks of participatory surveillance. As we perform or participate online, we not only watch others, and ourselves but invisible algorithms track the relation between all of these activities. Looking at the interface of Facebook, Bachler shows how we are forced into a set of reductive binary choices. Her deconstruction of the interface is reminiscent of Matthew Fuller’s analysis of software and how it habituates and disciplines us.[ref]For further reading see: Behind the Blip: essays on the culture of software, Matthew Fuller, Autonomedia: New York (2003)[/ref] For Bachler the main concern is not only the hidden cost of participatory surveillance, but also how the simple ‘user friendly’ blue interface may actually be standardising our communication amongst friends.

In a time of participatory surveillance, understanding what is being tracked is one of the most difficult challenges for any user. Clean interfaces and ‘one click’ settings conceal the way data is gathered and interrelated. However, Naked on Pluto, a multi-player game integrating Facebook, reveals those invisible connections in a playful way. Operating within Facebook’s guidelines, the project only uses data that is made accessible when adding any app. But the surprise is one of recontextualisation. As scholars such as Daniel J. Solove and Helen Nissenbaum have argued, integral to our understanding of privacy is the notion of context.[ref]See both: Understanding Privacy, Daniel J. Solove, Harvard University Press: Cambridge (May 2008) and Privacy in Context: Technology, Policy, and the Integrity of Social Life, Helen Nissenbaum, Stanford Law Books: Palo Alto, CA (2009)[/ref] If there is a shift of context, and data is moved from one place to another, in this case from Facebook to Pluto, a sense of sudden exposure ensues.

In the end, networks are always vulnerable and ripe for double espionage. That’s what projects like Newstweek and Men in Grey do. They parasite, distort, propagate and make us aware of the fragility of a system, which on the one hand appears technologically stealth, but on the other, is hung together with criss-crossing cables, hardware and out-dated encryption. They expose the soft penetrable membrane between big media and little gadgets, Internet Service Providers and unprotected wireless networks in homes and Internet cafés. Complex and at times ad hoc, there are always loopholes to exploit.

In the age of social networking, privacy is tenuous and elastic. The question is whether we should submit, resist, disconnect, or sabotage in response. Of course to reject the binary, which is crucial to understanding the fluidity of privacy, requires engaging most likely in all of the above. Sniff, Scrape, Crawl… is not only about the mechanisms of surveillance we are subjected to, but it also refers to our own balancing act performed daily within the network, a place where the double bind is perpetually the norm.