Relational Sousveillance: Hasan Elahi and the Myth of Practical Obscurity
— By Adri Wong | August 26, 2010
What to do when, wrongfully accused of being a terrorist bomber, one is detained by the FBI, interrogated, and forced (for example) to undergo nine polygraphs within a single day? One answer, no less logical than any other, is to make the very subject matter of the life investigated into art. That was Hasan Elahi’s answer.
Elahi — a university professor and “new media” artist — started “The Orwell Project” after he was detained at a Detroit airport and placed on a government watch list. The Project entails active disclosure of countless mundane details of Elahi’s daily activities, from his in-flight meal to his latest pit-stop at a public urinal. All of this is posted and live-updated on Elahi’s website, which you can find here. Says Elahi: “the best way to protect your privacy is to give it away.” According to a recently-published book by Amitava Kumar ( A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb, Duke University Press), Elahi sees this work as a form of protest and activism against the surveillance state. He told Kumar: “If 300 million people were to offer up the details of their private lives, you would need to hire another 300 million people just to keep up.”
Elahi is, unfortunately, wrong.
There are two main oversights in Elahi’s reasoning.
First, the government has computers. Big ones. And they’re willing to spend a lot of our tax dollars on them. (Thus, unless there are major political changes in both parties, Elahi’s “flooding” of the market will not lead to less surveillance, though a successful implementation of his proposal might come at the cost of our public highways, e.g.) Simply put, there’s no need to hire 300 million more people when you can design a single software program to do the same work.
There’s a name for the concept behind Elahi’s strategic theory — “practical obscurity” — and there’s a whole body of literature announcing and analyzing its death, dating back at least a decade. (The same technology enabling this societal shift can help you find more on this subject…)
Second, Elahi assumes that there is very specific hidden information the government is looking for that must be sifted from the insignificant. (“It’s economics,” Elahi says. “I flood the market.”) But there is no detail of a person’s existence so quotidian that it cannot be made significant and telling simply by virtue of being identified and pulled from the common muck of surveilled activity. If the Internet has taught us anything, it is that boundless information does not cause us to lose our impulse to look for things; rather, our response is to capriciously fixate. Thus the NYPD’s guide for identifying “homegrown” terrorists — widely considered the most comprehensive and well-researched report in the country — gives officers the very precise advice to keep an eye on young men in “Bookstores, Cafes, Hookah Bars, and Internet Cafes.”
The Wired article on Elahi paraphrases: “No ambitious agent is going to score a big intelligence triumph by snooping into your movements when there’s a Web page broadcasting the Big Mac you ate four minutes ago in Boise, Idaho.” The article’s choice of Idaho as an example is painfully ironic in light of the fact that U.S. citizen Abdullah Al-Kidd was arrested in Idaho due to his association with some guy who posted some “jihadist” stuff on a public Muslim website FBI officials happened to be surveilling. At the time, al-Kidd’s arrest was considered a big intelligence triumph. Attorney General John Ashcroft even stood up and told Congress that it was one, calling it a major victory in the war on terror. (Al-Kidd was later cleared of any suspicion). Point being, making more information about your life public does not interfere with the government’s program of predictive surveillance — it only adds variety to the realm of possible facts that may be invoked when it’s your turn to play suspect.
What is delightful about Elahi’s work in context is not the debunked theory of practical obscurity he attaches to it by way of explanation, but the playful way in which the work engages the voyeur and terrorist-seeker that FOX News and 24 has instilled in each of us. For example, consider this piece by Elahi, composed of maps of every airport he has ever slept overnight in:
On the one hand, Elahi has shared an abstract yet wistful record of a life spent in transit. On the other hand, why would a normal person need so many detailed diagrams of airports? As Wired magazine pointed out in their feature on him, this whole artist shtick is kind of the perfect alibi…
By placing us in the viewpoint of the surveillant we may adopt the surveillant’s eye. Here, try out your surveillance-subjectivity on this one: What would you think of a guy who ran around taking thousands of photos like this?Tweet