For my final topic in Temporary Expert, I wanted to look at the incredibly broad topic of surveillance. It’s an old topic, and one that came back to the forefront last year through the Snowden leaks. While it was always something I had an interest in, it rarely went past fleeting interest. Some time in the last couple months, I came across the concept of Van Eck Phreaking, and it’s something that has just stuck in the back of my mind. Van Eck Phreaking is a way to recreate displays, originally CRTs but can now be used with flat panel displays, by interpreting the electronic frequency signals that the electronics give off.
Two things about that technology stood out to me (aside from the sheer “magic” factor of it): One, the complete and utter privacy invasion into the personal portal that is your laptop screen. It’s the ultimate big brother version of someone leering over your shoulder; it presents the opportunity to steal everything personally and professionally important that you do. The other was the “magic” factor I mentioned – listening to stray electronic signals, the byproduct of our devices, and being able to reconstruct our activities through unexpected patterns. Thinking about the topic was enough to send me down the path of surveillance.
Because my interest in the topic had been so random, my breadth of knowledge was insufficient. I set out to explore surveillance, in all its forms. I researched everything from the origins of spying to the technical programs commissioned by the NSA that spy on Americans to this day. I read about famous government moles, the Stasi, methods of computer encryption, artists working in this space, and recent publicized breaches. I also had conversations with Alexander Galloway (Previously of Carnivore fame) and Lauren McCarthy. I had a very nice conversation with Alex about ethics and approaches, although it seemed he doesn’t do much work in this realm anymore. I didn’t have the most productive conversation with Lauren, though much of that could be blamed on me as I wasn’t totally sure what I was going in to ask her. It was helpful to make my articulate my own thoughts, but not much past that.
From that research, I developed a few initial conclusions. The space is broad, exceedingly complex, and very futuristic. The technology is incredibly sophisticated, and pervasive enough that it’s tough to escape while living in modern society. The other thing I realized is peoples general ambivalence to the topic. Edward Snowden leaked the details of the largest government data collection system ever in June of 2013, and nothing has really changed. There were protests (Full disclosure – I didn’t go, and had to look up if there were even protests), but a couple of weeks ago, reform of the NSA was voted down. You can even here people defend the collection (“If you don’t have anything to hide…”). I’m really curious why people don’t seem to care about this. Is the technology and scope just too far over many peoples heads? Is it a sense of hopelessness? Is it removed just enough from your daily life that you forget and carry on? Before I could try to answer such a complex question, I began on a series of experiments to examine the nature of surveillance, in various forms, to try to break things down for myself.
I wanted to examine what people do, say, and make. And I thought it was important that my experiments involve me being on both sides of the situation. Watching and being watched. My first experiment involved watching myself, watching what I do, as an ode to Van Eck Phreaking (something I wasn’t going to accomplish in this timeframe). I wrote a script to capture my desktop every 5 minutes for a week, and compiled the images.
Right away I noticed behavioral changes in this. The script still played the mac screenshot sound, so I knew when it took the screenshot. I began thinking constantly about what I had up on the screen. Even though I was controlling the app, and the photos were saving locally, I still knew this was something I wanted to put online, so I was hesitant. I’d quickly do sensitive tasks right after a screenshot, or try to sneak in a facebook check; I almost felt like I should always be having work up on the screen. But if I had music playing, or the volume muted, or maybe had headphones plugged in, I wouldn’t hear the sounds, and would forget it was happening. That was my first indication that the feedback was potentially a really important aspect to these experiments.
My second experiment focused on what people say. Using an analog circuit (thanks to some internet resources of course, I didn’t come up with this), I built a laser microphone. Sounds make things vibrate, and speakers vibrate when they play music, just as glass vibrates when you talk behind it. By placing a small mirror on the speaker, I could shine a laser at it, and catch the reflection on a photoresistor. Running that signal through a transistor to a headphone jack, you can head music playing simply by catching the reflections of a laser. When I showed this to people, their reaction was always the same – it’s like magic. This is an old technology, been around for decades, but it was leaving people speechless when they realized what was happening. That says a lot about the state of todays technology.
Lastly, I did two experiments on what people make. The first, as the one who surveils. Thanks to some help from Surya, I was able to engage in what’s called packet sniffing, the act of watching the packets we send over a network when your computer makes requests to a server. Again, this is not a new technology. But it’s incredibly interesting to see network traffic flashing across your computer. I only did it through a local host on my computer, but you immediately feel a sense of power when you can identify the packets containing “payloads,” or the actual content you’re trying to send, open it, and read it. You can also inject packets, in what’s called a man-in-the-middle attack. I see a packet come through requesting information, and step in to impersonate the response, sending what I want. I used this to control a small network game of pong, where I could intercept my own commands and change them. There’s obviously security measures to prevent me from doing this to your gmail, but all that’s really stopping me is my own technical ability. This is a thing that is done, and there’s a whole range of emotions you go through realizing you can perform actions like this.
For the last experiment, I wanted to get a sense of what I make. And, as far as the government or advertisers are concerned, I make data. Data to track me, analyze my actions, place me in a demographic, and sell things to me. Everyone of us does this, and it drives both government surveillance and the entire online advertising world. I thought back to the feedback sounds from my desktop experiment, and from examples like We Live in Public, a great documentary. People are usually fine with surveillance until they have to be confronted with it. The realization that it’s constantly happening, the cognizance of being watched, is what breaks people down mentally and emotionally. I wrote a Chrome extension that blinks a small red light every time you (theoretically) create a data point. I didn’t have the time to really track data you make, but this simulates it by tracking clicks, text inputs, web page changes, etc. For any action that would create a data point used to quantify you, a light blinks. I haven’t had time to really test it, as I just finished it, but I’m optimistic(?) about the potential. I don’t know if another blinking light is what we really need, if it will help anything or drive awareness, or even what the goal really is, but I think it’s a step in the right direction.