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2 September 2015updated 07 Sep 2021 11:32am

Your private texts for all to see: visualizing your data

The algorithm, Farid says, is programmed to pick up flesh tones: “It tries to find the most embarrassing pictures.”

By Barbara Speed

I am standing in the darkness inside a shipping container and the artist Mark Farid is about to hack into my phone. I have come to Cambridge for the launch of Data Shadow, an installation that Farid and his team hope will bring digital privacy – or the lack of it – to life. Visitors enter the container and are asked by a stony-faced attendant to agree to a long list of terms and conditions and join a wifi network. Immediately, a projector beams your name and recently visited locations on to the walls.

Meanwhile, projectors in the other half of the container show two versions of your silhouette, one filled with recent text messages; the other with photos from your phone. The algorithm, Farid says, is programmed to pick up flesh tones: “It tries to find the most embarrassing pictures.”

As you move, the silhouettes move with you. The overall effect is eerie. “We wanted to bring you face to face with your own data,” Farid says. His team is also working on a second version of the technology, in which your phone would join the network with no input from you at all and a phone call you make is intercepted by a stranger outside the container.

Tonight, Farid will also launch another, even more personal project. In an hour, he will speak in a panel discussion about privacy at the University of Cambridge’s Festival of Ideas. But what the audience doesn’t know – “Actually, even my friends and housemates don’t know,” he tells me – is that Farid will close the event by giving up his online identity entirely. Until April 2016, he will use only a pay-as-you-go phone and Oyster card and set up individual email accounts for anything he does online so they cannot be linked together.

The final nail in Farid’s digital coffin will be the moment he hands out all of his passwords and login details – including those for his email, Facebook and bank – to the audience. Is he nervous about this? “I’ve taken out three kinds of insurance, so I won’t be liable for anything that happens. I’ve closed my bank accounts.” But does he have insurance against friends and family who may be angry that strangers could read their messages? “Er, no.”

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At the talk, Farid explains to the audience that big companies want us to relinquish our privacy. “Privacy is the most important thing we have,” he says. “Without it, you can’t do anything. You start to self-censor.” He cites a Supreme Court ruling in the US that laid out how the right to privacy (the Fourth Amendment) does not apply there to non-US citizens.

As the event draws to a close, Farid asks: “What happens if you subvert this situation? What happens if you give up your digital life?” He hands out printouts of his passwords, most of which are a combination of “the-strokes” and a few digits. A man raises his hand to say that he has already logged into Farid’s Facebook and changed the password. I log into his LinkedIn and wonder what to do next.

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.” 

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