Lift11: Hasan Elahi, Giving away your privacy to escape the US terrorist watch list [en]

[fr] Notes de la conférence Lift11 à Genève.

Live and India-lagged notes from the Lift11 Conference in Geneva. Might contain errors and personal opinions. Use the comments if you spot nasty errors.

As an artist, sometimes you just get opportunities thrown on you and you have to take them.

Airport in Detroit, June 19th 2002, flying back from an exhibition in Africa. Hands his passport to the immigration guard who turns white, doesn’t say a word, leads him through a maze to a detention service. He tries to start talking to the guards, they’re just as confused as he is. Lots of other people from all over the world, fear. He’s frazzled, just got off from long flight, hasn’t bathed… Man in a dark suit walks up to him and says “I expected you to be older”.

Hasan says “do you mind explaining what’s happening?” — is answered: “you have some explaining to do yourself”. Is taken to a kind of cell and questioned. Where were you? Gives answers, but doesn’t understand what’s going on. When he says he was in Dakar for an art exhibition, he (who has a hard enough time explaining this to other artists) “I’m a sculptor”. Who funds your travel? Etc.

Out of the blue: where were you on September 12th? On September 26th? He pulls out his palm and looks at his calendar — they went through roughly 6 months of his calendar.

Turns out they’d received a report of an Arab man fleeing on September 12th with explosives — never mind he wasn’t Arab, was giving classes on September 12th, and wasn’t carrying explosives.

The guy ended up believing him and let him go home.

Shortly after he got home, phone call: “we’d like to follow up with you about your interview in Detroit”. Note the vocabulary. Spent the next six months going back and forth to the FBI building in Tampa where he lived. After 9 consecutive lie detector tests, it finally ended (you can’t use lie detectors in court, but it’s OK for national security! irony). “Do you belong to any groups who want to harm the US?” — I work for a university.

At the end, he asks for a letter saying that everything is OK. But in order to be formally cleared, he would have needed to be formally charged, which was never the case. His concern: he travels a lot, and doesn’t want to go through this again because somebody didn’t get the memo. So they gave him some phone numbers — if you’re in trouble, call.

So he ended up voluntarily calling them up each time he traveled to give the info on flights, destinations, etc. Phone calls turned into e-mails, lengthy e-mails, e-mails with pictures, web pages made for the FBI to tell them what he was doing, highlights, here’s what you should see here… and in return “be safe!”. Unbalanced relationship.

During the investigation, he told them everything. Rather than saying “this isn’t legal, I’m walking away”, he told them everything. When face-to-face with somebody who can just take you to Guantanamo without giving you an explanation… you don’t act rationally. He completely cooperated. They knew everything about him.

Massive system though, can’t possibly operate at 100% efficiency. There could be cracks in the data. So he decided to make everything public, to make sure we knew all the FBI knew.

So he wrote a little bit of tracking code. Approached telco companies saying he wanted to build a device that tells people where he is, what he’s doing, and every little detail of his life. “Are you crazy?!” — but now we’re all doing it with Facebook and Twitter, huh.

He decided to tell the FBI everything.

Hmm, record of his flights, but are they thorough enough? Back to birth (though some flight numbers are missing). Photos linked to those flights: airport, airline food… his alibi!

They should also know what he’s eating, so he photographs it all. *steph-note: this guy is good! and funny! and I like what he’s doing!*

He gives everything, but they must still do some of the work of putting the data together 😉 (ie, food records don’t give the year)

All his financial records are public. His phone records. The toilets he uses. They need to know all that!!

Decided to take it to a point of such detailed level (or even absurdity) that it generates so much information about him that he actually leads a pretty private life. *steph-note: exactly my point about putting a lot about myself online, and why I’m not /that/ worried about privacy issues — might be wrong, but hey…*

Having a little information about yourself online is dangerous. Better to bury stuff, and be in control of your own identity *(steph-note: OK, here I want to link to Anil Dash’s post about controlling your identity that I never manage to find when I want to link to it)*.

It takes almost no time to track all this. No different than sending a tweet or a text. He takes out his phone, takes a photo, adds a comment, and sends it to his server. Clunky software though by today’s standards.

Takes very generic photos — but you recognize the space it’s taken in if you know it. Does not include other people who may not be as comfortable as he is in having their whole life online. Other aspect: it’s not about people, it’s just about “data” — “it could be me”.

Yes, the military and FBI do visit his website! (screenshot of logs shows impressive amount of .mil and .gov domains).

It’s not just about devices, it’s about what we do with it. We’re good at collecting information but we’re very bad at analyzing it, and putting it to use. Imagine if everybody in the US was doing this? Would have to rebuild the system from scratch, overflow.

*steph-note: I’m already at the point where I generate so much information I can’t deal with it myself.*

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