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How To Be Anonymous In The Age Of DNA Surveillance

Last week, Bushwick gallery 319 Scholes brought together 60 artists for the second annual Art Hack Day—a three-day-long, bleary-eyed hackathon where teams created technology-based works around the theme of “God Mode,” the gaming cheat that grants a player infinite power, omniscient eyesight, and other all-seeing awesomeness. Here, we take a look at a few of the most innovative and thought-provoking works to spin out of the ensuing exhibition.

The 19th century poet Baudelaire used to glorify the anonymity of modern living. These days, pretty much the exact opposite is true. The shadow of surveillance looms large—with Google Glass touting its facial recognition software, face-tagging returning to Facebook (that’s right, it’s baa-aack), and drones developing new ways to identify their targets.

In other words, in an era where the creepiness of being watched becomes the norm, you have three options: 1) give up and pretend not to care, 2) fight back, or 3) make jokes about it. The four-person team behind “How To Be Anonymous In An Age of DNA” chose to do two out of the three.

In the four-minute-long video, which was scripted and shot at the hackathon, features two members of the team, Aurelia Moser and Heather Dewey-Hagborg, attempt to mask their own DNA by using one another’s. While tongue-in-cheek instructions on how to counteract genetic surveillance flash on the screen, the two women use a kit assembled out of drug store paraphernalia to methodically trade hair, lipstick, and nails—thereby cloaking themselves in the others’ genetic identity. It’s kind of like that scene in a movie where a guy puts a fake sticker on his thumb to trick a fingerprint scanner—but better.



Dewey-Hagborg explained that their idea of “DNA spoofing” sprung from recent headlines on the recent “six strikes” law punishing copyright infringement—which tech-savvy users are already calling a “miserable failure” because of one’s ability to spoof an IP.

“My own work with forensic DNA extraction from samples found in public has gotten me thinking about DNA paranoia,” she continued, “and as we started chatting about ways of hybridizing the biological and the political, this idea emerged.”

Aurelia emphasized that they wanted to “do something that glitched bio-art” while providing “a toolset for defense against surveillance—divine or otherwise.”

The two remaining members of the group also had motives to explore the relationships between power, surveillance, and the state. One of them was Allison Burtch—one of the people behind Occupy Wall Street’s journal—and the other, Adam Harvey, developed a simple way to avoid facial recognition technology using digital camouflage.


It seems that finding new ways to hide from technology will become increasingly common in the coming years. Meanwhile, Harvey, Burtch, Moser, and Dewey-Hagborg plan to take the project into its next phase: creating DIY counter-surveillance kits and manuals. They’ve also posted the video on Instructables and will be fielding questions for the rest of the week. Go ahead and reclaim your anonymity.

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