The line of people moving down Mulberry Street in Manhattan’s SoHo district on Tuesday night could’ve easily been confused for a product launch. It was pouring rain, and the mostly-young crowd was slowly shuffling past designer handbag stores and into a shiny, brightly-lit storefront reminiscent of Apple’s trademark retail destinations.
Unbeknownst to them or anyone casually passing by on the street, their smartphones were being tracked. An array of cylindrical Yagi antennas pointed outward from the storefront’s windowed entrance, recording the positions and unique MAC addresses of every WiFi-enabled device that wandered by—a setup reminiscent of the “Stingray” fake cell tower devices secretly used by police to track cellphones en-masse. Inside, a huge screen displayed a map of those devices as their owners sauntered about the space, consuming hors d’oeuvres and cocktails with cheeky cyber-themed names like “The Firewall.”
The “store” isn’t actually a store, of course. This was the opening party for The Glass Room, a pop-up digital privacy space that’s free and open to the public through December 14, courtesy of Mozilla, makers of the Firefox browser, and the Tactical Technology Collective, a Berlin-based activist group known for interventions in online security and digital rights.
One of the featured exhibits at The Glass Room. Image: Joshua Kopstein
The “products” that sit on pedestals inside the Glass Room aren’t for sale, and range from playful art installations to demonstrations of actual surveillance tools used by law enforcement and private corporations. Near the front is a multi-volume hardcover encyclopedia of LinkedIn passwords leaked in a 2012 data dump, printed by artist Aram Bartholl. On a large table behind the books is a glass bubble enclosing a scale model of Mark Zuckerberg’s infamously-secluded home (he bought the 4 surrounding houses to ensure his privacy) as well as a reconstruction of the main offices of Palantir, the shadowy US government data mining contractor started by noted Donald Trump supporter and alleged vampiric billionaire Peter Thiel.
Further back beyond a small set of stairs are more white pedestals displaying actual surveillance products, like Snapshot, a DNA phenotyping service offered by a company called Parabon NanoLabs, which reconstructs “mugshot” facial profiles from DNA samples. (Not long ago, the same capability was first demonstrated as a speculative art project by artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg.)
The DNA Detox exhibit at the Glass Room. Image: Joshua Kopstein
Another display attempts to recreate a real surveillance system called Texas Virtual BorderWatch, which until 2012 used a network of 200 connected cameras to allow real-time crowdsourced policing of the US-Mexican border. There’s also Humanyze, a wearable tracking device that lets companies collect “people analytics” about employees’ movements and activities while on the clock, to optimize for productivity—something the device’s creators unnervingly claim “will become the norm of future workplaces.”
Mark Surman, the executive director of Mozilla’s non-profit arm, hopes the installations will help provoke an awakening in regular people who never thought they had skin in the privacy and security game.
“Really, this is a moment where we need to get everybody as citizens thinking about the health of the internet,” he said during a press preview event just prior to the space’s opening.
With the imminent arrival of an administration that has openly expressed contempt towards privacy, the free press, civil rights, and the rule of law, Surman’s concern seems like a huge understatement. The list of surveillance powers President-elect Donald Trump will inherit on January 20th—which privacy advocates have long fought against—is frighteningly long, and still growing: On Thursday, Congress failed to block a procedural rule change that gives the FBI the legal authority to hack millions of computers around the globe under a single warrant.
As Surman and I chatted about the closely-intertwined dangers presented by large-scale data collection, unaccountable machine learning algorithms, and the pathetically-insecure Internet of Things, it was hard not to be overwhelmed by the sense that we’re completely and utterly fucked. But seeing the mobilization of security-focused activist groups in the aftermath of the election, along with high-profile interventions like the Glass Room, there seems to be evidence that many people are finally done hitting the snooze button on stepping up their privacy game.
For what it’s worth, the Edward Snowden-approved encrypted messaging app Signal has seen a significant jump in popularity since in the weeks since the election. And in New York and elsewhere, digital security trainings that teach threat-modeling and privacy tools are starting to spring up with a renewed sense of urgency, as activists and marginalized communities brace themselves for at least four years of a Trump presidency.
The Glass Room will also be hosting workshops on digital security and surveillance, as well as handing out “digital detox” kits—a kind of privacy 10-step program designed to reduce your data footprint.
“My mantra right now is we have to take this set of issues and bring it into the mainstream, because the stakes are going up,” Surman told me. “None of this is unsolvable, we just have to try and take it seriously.”
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