It seems that every day some new information comes to light revealing the extent of the NSA's secret surveillance measures. Ever since Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor-turned-whistleblower blew the lid off this whole thing, it's become increasingly clear that any illusions of privacy we may have once held were nothing more than naive self-delusion.
Today Kim Asendorf, Ole Fach, Kyle McDonald and Jonas Lund launched Where is Obama? a site that aims to turn the tables on the government by letting the mass hordes of the internet band together to collectively track the POTUS in return. Visitors to the site can report the position of the President at any given time by putting a marker on a Google map. Averaging all the user inputs from the last few hours they calculate the probable position of the President. They call it a "Crowd-Sourced Positioning System, or CSPS."
In their announcement they write: "The position of the president is a state secret. The White House website shows only Barack Obama's schedule from the current day, but never dates beyond. The accuracy of this information is controversial. Obama, on the other hand, knows your entire calendar... Every person in the world can now participate in the supervision of the President."
We sent the team a few questions to find out more about their artistic intent for this project, and the affect they're hoping it will have.
The Creators Project: What was your motivation for creating this work?
Kyle McDonald: Besides a general interest in experimentation with surveillance, and providing tools for sousveillance to "the crowd", this project evolved in response to a specific cultural moment. Immediately after Edward Snowden made his initial leak, there was a massive crowd-sourced attempt to verify his exact whereabouts, driven by reporters and governments around the world. It turned the leaks into a story about Snowden as a personality rather than discussing the content of the leaks. Journalists made flashy maps with visualizations of Snowden's location: all the flights he could take without being extradited, or where he might be this moment, or his chances for asylum in various countries.
The same way the press made the leaks a story about tracking Snowden, we wanted to turn it into a story about tracking Obama. To show how ridiculous it is to pin stories like this down to a single person, and to give people the feeling that maybe we have the same power that the government does, if only we organize ourselves. With that power, how do we want to use it? Who do we want to track? Will we emulate the government, antagonize them, or reject their example completely?
Fach & Asendorf: We are interested in the behavior of the people. What happens if you provide tools to fight the surveillance on an artistic level? Is the position of the president a point of interest? Can we validate the position of Barack Obama with a crowd-sourced system?
What has your personal reaction been to the NSA surveillance news?
Fach & Asendorf: It is clear that the US military is observing the Internet from the first day on. We just can say: "Put your art online if you want the government to see it."
McDonald: To anyone paying attention to surveillance culture, the scope of the NSA's activity is not surprising. This is part of a regular cycle, where we grow to accept the forces outside of our control, and are then routinely surprised about the systems operating out of sight. With more education and discussion about ubiquitous monitoring the most illicit kinds of surveillance will become more secretive, and the most banal kinds will become comfortably disregarded.
Do you feel like a compromise between security and privacy is possible? What might that look like?
McDonald: Everyone wants security, and when it's presented in opposition to privacy most people are willing to forfeit a bit of one in return for the other. But this is a false dichotomy. Like Schneier asks, if you want to secure a room do you place a guard at the door who invasively reviews everyone's personal information before they can enter? Or do you just put a lock on it? We can design secure systems without forfeiting privacy.
Do you believe that bottom-up, groundswell responses that help the populace band together like this can have the power to affect real change?
Fach & Asendorf: Probably we are all too fed up to force a significant change of the system, but we can make or support activism or art performances to bring them on a popular level to create a consciousness in the common society.