Want privacy? Expose yourself.

How an artist snitches on himself to elude FBI

Hasan Elahi/Tracking Transience

Hasan Elahi, an academic and artist with no shady dealings to hide, found himself in an unfortunate position. Upon returning to the U.S. from an international flight nine years ago, he was held for questioning by government authorities. The questioning continued for six months. It seems Elahi had been confused with someone very sinister, someone connected to the Sept. 11 attacks. The long process of convincing federal law enforcement agents of his innocence was tense and frightening, but he did.

Sort of. After he was cleared, Elahi was still nervous about traveling. Was he on any lists? Had he been flagged for more scrutiny? Would he be watched?

He shared his worries with the FBI, who suggested that if he told them in advance about his travel plans, they would do their best to make sure he’d have clear passage. So he divulged his information to government officials–personal information that he had no obligation to share. It worked. So he shared more, and then more.

Today, Elahi shares everything. He exposes every minute detail about himself on his website. He tracks his whereabouts with the GPS data in his phone. He photographs every place he visits, every meal he eats and every men’s room he–you get it. There are 46,000 photos on his site. He dug into his own past, creating a log of every flight he’s ever taken. And the authorities have made use of his self-exposure; Elahi’s server logs reveal that his site has received visits from the Department of Homeland Security, the CIA., the National Reconnaissance Office and the Executive Office of the President.

Why does he do this? To make a point, in part, and also to make art. But mainly Elahi snitches on himself in the hope that he will be left alone. In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, he wrote that, “in an era in which everything is archived and tracked, the best way to maintain privacy may be to give it up.”

Perhaps he’s onto something. Intelligence agencies like the FBI are in the business of uncovering the covered. If the data they seek is hidden in plain site, they are robbed of their primary purpose. All that’s left for them to do is making sense of the reams of data that’s been handed to them, a task that can prove very difficult.

It turns out that Big Brother has a very boring job–99.9 per cent of the time, our private data is irrelevant. Finding the needle in the haystack is a task many wish computers were better at. But identifying criminal relevance is a contextually sensitive activity at which humans beat computers every time.

That’s why true privacy may lie in voluntary exposure. The more of us who leak our lives, the harder it will be for authorities to watch any of us. As Elahi puts it, “if 300 million people started sending private information to federal agents, the government would need to hire as many as another 300 million people, possibly more, to keep up with the information.”

Of course, not all of us are conceptual artists like Elahi, with the time and skills needed to build a website with which to track ourselves. Thankfully, we have Facebook.

Jesse Brown is the host of TVO.org’s Search Engine podcast. He is on Twitter @jessebrown




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Want privacy? Expose yourself.

  1. “That’s why true privacy may lie in voluntary exposure. The more of us who leak our lives, the harder it will be for authorities to watch any of us.”

    I am not sure if this is serious comment or not – Authorities wouldn’t have to watch us because we are sending them our info. The State has been surveilling people for over a century now, that is not going to stop just because we start putting all our info online. Suspicious types – the ones who are attracted to police work – will just think we are trying to appear normal while doing naughty things and will wonder what are we hiding. 

    Don’t tell State anything at all if you want to keep your privacy. 

    • You’ve pretty much told us your entire life story on here…it would take all of 10 minutes to find you and know every other detail of your life, if a govt employee was reading this blog.

  2. Resisting the temptation to snark… must fight it…

    So, what you are suggesting is that we completely register every aspect of ourselves with this new super-surveillance system the State has developed, else we be hazarding incarceration and/or elimination, accidental or otherwise ?  Will I have to apply for a permit to have children, too?  To marry?  Where I can live?  Where does it end?  How much coercion will I be setting myself up for if I completely and totally surrender to the surveillance state?  Will I have a case worker?  How long do you think the state will be overwhelmed for?  Wouldn’t they just implement cross-sectional datamining to narrow down the suspect list?  

    I don’t want to rely upon the fact that I haven’t done anything wrong.  I’ve already said enough dumb @#$% on this site alone for someone to tag me as suspect. 

  3. The issue here is Government surveillance which is at it’s highest levels in history. 

    Puerile, naive articles like this are counterproductive. As someone else pointed out, any OGA would look at Elahi’s self disclosing with extreme skepticism. 

    It’s not about “identifying criminal relevance”  Jesse, it’s about social control. Read Glenn Greenwald for the most cogent commentary on the surveillance state. Not this, I spent a whole 30 minutes on it, drivel. 

  4. Why is it Hasan here exposes himself to the FBI, and they leave him alone. But when I expose myself on a bus, then the police chase me down!!

    This is reverse racism!!!!!

    • Suck it up.

  5. You’re not really “snitching” on yourself if you haven’t done anything wrong…

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