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This artist gave out all his login details and passwords to the public. Here's why

Conceptual artist Mark Farid believes our online privacy is the only right we have left – and that’s why governments and companies are so keen to take it from us.

Can you ever really escape your digital identity?

Mark Farid thinks so. On Monday night, at a panel discussion of digital privacy hosted by the University of Cambridge's Festival of Ideas, Farid handed out a stack of A4 pieces of paper to a befuddled audience. Typed out on each were his login details. All of them. All five email addresses. Facebook, LinkedIn, Skype, Amazon, Apple ID.

Even if he'd missed a password out, we'd be pretty safe in the assumption it was something to do with Leicester or The Strokes:

After a moment of shock, the audience, me included, busied ourselves on our phones. One man raised his hand to announce that he'd already logged into Farid's Facebook page and changed the password. Within minutes, his Hotmail password was changed, too. I managed to log into LinkedIn, and wondered what to do next. Endorse someone's skills? Send off a scattershot round of connection requests?

From this moment until next April, Farid will try to live without a digital footprint: he will use only pay as you go phones with little or no internet connectivity ("I want a flip phone") and Oyster cards, and will create dedicated email accounts for anything he needs to do online. As far as possible, he hopes to be untrackable. 

 * * *

Farid and I spoke last week about a different, far less personal project, out of which the password stunt grew: Data Shadow. Data Shadow is basically a shipping container, sitting in a Cambridge garden outside the room where we're watching Farid commit privacy kamikaze.

Visitors step inside the container, and meet one of several scenarios, depending on which parts of the technology are working. Farid's favourite runs thus: once inside, your phone automatically connects to a wifi network, which poses as your phone provider. It pulls out your name and recently visited locations and projects them on the wall. At the same time, two more projectors beam outlines of your body on to the walls. One is filled with recent text messages; the other with your photos. “The algorithm is trained to pick up flesh tones,” Farid tells me. “We’re trying to find the most embarrassing pictures we can.” 

You're then asked to make a phone call to someone. As you do, another phone outside the container starts to ring. If a passerby picks up, they can join in on - or simly listen to - your conversation. When the door of the container shuts behind you, your data is wiped from the system, and you receive a text explaining what just happened. 

The project, funded jointly by technology agency Collusion, Cambridge University, The Technology Partnership and Arts Council England, cost £30,000. Only a small portion of this was spent on the technology it takes to hack into a phone. 

Before the talk, Farid and I visit the container, and he hacks into his phone and shows me his own data shadow. As the body-shaped messages and photos flicker around me, I ask Farid if he’s nervous that he’s about to hand over his online identity to the public. Almost no one knows what he’s planning – not even his housemates. “To be honest, I’ve been too stressed to be nervous,” he says. He has deleted emails containing sensitive information sent to him by others, but everything on his Facebook, for example, is still there. We’ll be able to look through his messages, friends, history, photos, and texts.

Farid tells me he's taken out three types of insurance against whatever we, the audience, might try to do with his social media. But there's no insurance against friends and family getting angry about the indirect access the public will have to their life too; the pictures and messages we'll all be able to see. "No, I suppose not." 

* * * 

The seed for these artworks was planted when Farid stopped getting stopped in airports. On a school trip to New York aged 15, Farid was held back at border control for over an hour. "They basically asked whether I was a terrorist - 'do you have any firearms', 'do you play with explosives'." 

Over the next few years, something changed: Farid got social media. Now, he is never stopped. Part of the investigation he's carrying out by giving up his online identity is how this will affect the state's treatment of him - now they can no longer assume they know what he's doing, perhaps that level of suspicion will return.

Online surveillance gives those watching the sense that they know what we're up to. Employers may find questionable pictures or posts on your social media, but they'd be even more concerned if they couldn't find you at all. In 2012 German newspaper Der Taggspiegel, pointed out that neither James Holmes (the murderer of 12 in a Colorado cinema) nor Anders Behring Breivik had Facebook profiles. A lack of online presence is, in a word, suspicious. 

* * *

At the talk, Farid explains to the audience that big companies want us to relinquish our privacy, and that this is incredibly dangerous. “Privacy is the most important thing we have. Without it, you can’t do anything. You start to self- censor.” In the US, he tells us, the courts have ruled that the fourth Amendment - the right to privacy - does not apply to non-US citizens. The US can (and does) monitor an endless list of groups and individuals without warrants, including Angela Merkel and Amnesty International. 

During the panel discussion, two examples come up which seem to outline our contradictory approach to privacy. One audience member raises something called the “chat room paradox”, which was first raised in 2007 in the early days of forums and social media: if your child enters a chat room, you want them to be totally anonymous, yet at the same time, you want to know everything about the identities of the other people in that chat room. 

Then there's the fact that discussions of privacy and state surveillance often come down to the phrase "I've got nothing to hide". We assume that only criminals would want privacy from the state. Yet as Daniel Thomas, a researcher at the University of Cambridge, points out, it's no coincidence that Germans are far more cautious about giving up their privacy than we are. "They know - they remember - that the state is willing to collect your underwear to keep in jars in case they needed to train dogs to chase you”. (Ironically, German authorities used this tactic again to track down violent protesters at 2007's G8 summit). In a basic sense, these "odour jars" were collections of "data" used by the state to track individuals. In Soviet-run East Germany, individuals were encouraged to spy on their neighbours. If that state existed now, it wouldn’t need them to.

As a demonstration of this, Farid asks the audience to go onto our location settings on our iPhones or Androids, and see whether our phone has been tracking our locations. I was under the impression I'd switched my location services off, but no such luck:

(To check yours on an iPhone, go to settings - > privacy - > location services - > system services, right at the bottom of the page.)

As it stands, we give up our data in exchange for the convenience free online services and our smartphones give us. "But what happens if you subvert this situation?" Farid asks us, gathering up the stack of papers containing his passwords and preparing to hand them out. "What happens if you give it all up?" 

Earlier, I asked Farid why he decided to take the project to such a personal extreme. “What we’re trying to do with Data Shadow is show that this could have been you. Your data could be mined by anyone. People need to start taking responsibility for that.”  

* * *

As I walk back to Cambridge train station, I open Google Maps. "Google Maps neeeds permission to show your location on the map. Turn on location services to navigate." I hesitate, still holding Farid's list of passwords. Eventually, I turn it back on. 

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the Third Intifada?

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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