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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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A hatchet job on the Daily Mail: Peter Wilby reviews Mail Men

Peter Wilby on Adrian Addison’s expletive-strewn history of the Daily Mail.

The Ukip leader Paul Nuttall recently claimed that he was among the crowd at the Hillsborough football stadium disaster in 1989 and that he lost close personal friends there, statements which suggest, at best, a flexible relationship with the truth. David English, the Daily Mail editor from 1971 to 1992, went one better. He claimed to have been in Dallas in November 1963 on the day John F Kennedy was assassinated. He was, he told Mail readers 25 years later, “part of the inner press circle which the Kennedys courted so assiduously” and: “We lived and travelled well, we President’s men . . . in brand new special planes.” In Dallas, he “witnessed the whole unbelievable scenario”. In fact, English, then based in New York for the Daily Express, was 1,600 miles away having a coffee break near his office. Adrian Addison’s riotously entertaining book is full of similar stories.

The present editor, Paul Dacre, has never been caught out in such flamboyant untruths. Yet, as Addison explains, the very appearance of the Daily Mail is based on a more subtle lie. Flick through its “human interest” features and you find “typical” Britons talking about their experience of relationships, crime, hospitals, schools, and so on. “Typical” in the Mail’s world means Mail readers as envisaged by its editor – white and middle class, not too fat or too thin, with smart but sensible clothes, hair and shoes, and free of tattoos and nose rings. A story does not, as editors say, “work” unless a picture shows the subjects conforming to this stereotype. If they don’t, make-up artists and hair stylists are despat­ched along with the correct clothing.

Addison, a BBC journalist for much of his career, has experience of tabloid journalism, though not at the Mail. Well over half his book is devoted to the editorships of English and his direct successor, Dacre, with the Mail’s first 75 years – including the familiar but still shocking story of its proprietor’s admiration for Hitler in the 1930s – dismissed in just 150 pages. The paper’s Sunday sister, launched in 1982, is mentioned only briefly.

In many respects, the book is a hatchet job. Dacre emerges, to quote Stephen Fry, as “just about as loathsome, self-regarding, morally putrid, vengeful and disgusting a man as it is possible to be”; English comes out very slightly better, thanks to personal charm and lavish parties; and the Mail Online’s publisher, Martin Clarke, who gets a chapter to himself, is portrayed as a cross between Vlad the Impaler and Fred West, redeemed, like Dacre, by demonic energy and undeniable success in attracting readers.

Like a good tabloid editor, Addison varies the tone, giving us occasional tear-jerking passages to show that even Mail editors have a human side. English befriends an ­office messenger boy, promises to find him a job in journalism if he gets an A-level in English, and proves as good as his word. Dacre, shy and socially clumsy, summons a features editor who had said the previous night, “You are mad, you know, Paul,” and asks, “I’m not really mad, am I?” Addison even deploys that old tabloid staple, the faithful, prescient dog. It belonged to Vere Harmsworth, the 3rd Viscount Rothermere and fourth Mail proprietor, who died in 1998 just 12 weeks after English, some said of a broken heart because the two had become so close. The day that Harmsworth, tax-exiled in France, was leaving home for London, where a heart attack killed him, his dog Ryu-ma refused to accompany the master to the airport in the chauffeur-driven car as it usually did.

The Harmsworths command a degree of admiration from many journalists. Of all the great newspaper dynasties – the Beaverbrooks, the Astors, the Berrys – they alone have stayed the course. The present proprietor, Jonathan Harmsworth, the 4th Viscount Rothermere, is the great-great-nephew of Alfred (“Sunny”) Harmsworth, who co-founded the paper in 1896. The Mail’s masthead hasn’t changed in 121 years, nor have several other things. Just as Sunny had only one Daily Mail editor until his death in 1922, Jonathan sticks by Dacre, allowing him to get on with his fanatical Brexiteering despite being a Remain sympathiser himself. So, too, did his father allow Dacre to denounce Tony Blair while he himself moved to the Labour benches in the House of Lords. Again like Sunny and Vere, Jonathan keeps accountants at arm’s length, giving the editor such generous budgets that the Mail scraps roughly two-thirds of the features it commissions yet still pays higher “kill” fees for them than other papers pay for the articles they print.

Other aspects of the Harmsworth legacy are less admirable. Most papers worried about the militarisation of Germany in the years before the First World War but, Addison writes, the Mail “raged”. Today, it is rage against immigrants, liberals, Greens, benefit claimants, human rights lawyers, the EU, overseas aid and a host of individuals from Polly Toynbee to Gary Lineker that oozes from almost every paragraph of the paper.

Many among what Dacre calls “the liberal elite” will find that Addison has written the exposé of the Mail that they always wanted to read. The inside story, with its unexpur­gated f***s and c***s, is as bad as you thought it was. But remember: the paper sells about 1.5 million copies a day, second only to the Sun. Its faults and virtues (there are some of the latter) owe nothing to marketing constructs, the proprietor’s business interests, party loyalties or anything other than the editor’s judgement as to what people will read. Denounce it by all means, but remember that millions of Britons love it.

Peter Wilby was the editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the NS from 1998 to 2005

Mail Men: The Story of the Daily Mail - the Paper that Divided and Conquered Britain by Adrian Addison is published by Oneworld (336pp, £20)

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain