I have been fascinated by the story of Hasan Elahi ever since I read a Wired article about him. We will have the pleasure to hear his story at Lift11 where Hasan will be a speaker this February. Here is an interview I did last week, to be published on the Lift blog tomorrow. Discover how what was originally an art project became an identity management system.
Hasan Elahi is an interdisciplinary media artist with an emphasis on technology and media and their social implications. His research interests include issues of surveillance, sousveillance, simulated time, transport systems, and borders and frontiers.
At Lift11, Hasan will tell us his incredible story: he was taken into custody of the FBI as a terrorist suspect in the United States by mistake, and ended up living totally in public to protect himself from surveillance. His talk will show how forfeiting your privacy can in fact become a new form of protection of your identity.
Laurent Haug: Tell us your story, what happened?
Hasan Elahi: I was coming back from an exhibition in Dakar. As I pass through the US customs in Detroit, I handed my passport to the agent who froze. Something was obviously wrong. I was taken to a large room that belonged to the INS – the now defunct organizations regulating immigration, which which no US citizen normally ever interacts. A guy in a dark suit walks to me and says “I expected you to be older”. I asked “please explain!” The guy starts questioning me, and out of nowhere he asks me “where were you on September 12?”. I could not remember. So I took my Palm out of my pocket, and we looked up together on my calendar for detailed records. He then started to question me on a storage unit I had in Tampa, Florida. “What do you have in it?” I had clothes, junk, he looked confused and asked “no explosives?”. The FBI had received a report about “an arab man hiding explosives in a storage unit in Tampa”.
The whole thing was very strange. I had no idea what was happening. More than a confusion, it was a paranoia. I think I convinced the agent I had in front of me I had done nothing wrong. But the machine was started, and there was no way to stop it. For six months I spent my time in meetings at the FBI office, calls with the FBI, etc. It only ended when, after 9 lie detector tests, I was finally cleared of any suspicion. During that time, I had a strange survival instinct that was telling me to cooperate. I knew what was happening to me was completely illegal, and I could have fought back. But I wanted to avoid the confrontation, so I told them every single detail. I was calling every time I was moving to make sure they knew where I was and not raise a red flag.
What was your reaction after the first 6 months?
I decided to disclose my whole life online to let the FBI know where I was. I programed a software that allowed me to share my location and what I was doing. We are talking 2003, way before Facebook places or Foursquare 😉 What I wanted to do was create a file on myself, a file bigger than the FBI’s file. Then it hit me: why only the FBI should know that? If I started flooding the world with my information, I would devaluate their information on me and make it worthless. Their information would have no value as it would be less exhaustive than mine. It was a very symbolic action, but if you imagine 300 million people doing that then the whole intelligence system collapses.
At the beginning my system was only disclosing where I was with a photo. Then the project grew, I added my flight data, my bank records, my phone records.
Then I started to share every single detail. Food, beds I sleep in, toilets I used, etc. And the funny thing is that people started to get nervous, they were like “we don’t need to know all this!” 🙂 That is where I realized I was living an amazingly anonymous life. That data overload was in fact recreating my privacy. As you can not detach from Google search results, the only option you have is to flood the system, take power. You can not delete stuff, so bury it! My project – which started as an art experiment – turned at that point into an identity management mechanism.
What was the reaction of your friends and family?
First people would ask me to not stop at their houses. But as I value other peoples’ privacy, I made sure nobody was recognizable on the pictures I was publishing. Today we are talking over the phone together. But I will only disclose I was on the phone, at that time, at this location. Not who I was talking to. What I do is store pointers to information, not necessarily the information itself.
What do you want to do with this project beyond protecting yourself?
I want to expose the weaknesses of current intelligence techniques. We are very good at gathering information, but very bad at analyzing it. This is a widespread problem for society and business in general – way beyond the borders of the intelligence community.
I also want to show that it is not about fearing big brother. You can turn back the lens. That is when things start to get really interesting.