A new exhibit looks at consumer privacy in the age of big data.
In New York’s Soho neighborhood, the latest pop-up shop isn’t a store at all—it’s a compelling look at the systems we give our data over to, and the real-world consequences of these everyday decisions.
The Glass Room, an exhibition developed by nonprofit activist group Tactical Technology Collective, initially appeared in Berlin, and has been reconfigured for a US audience with help from the Mozilla Foundation.
“This is a new environment,” said Marek Tuszynski, cofounder and creative director of the Technical Technology Collective. “It’s not just a new data business model, but it’s a very new social, cultural political environment. We need to have that conversation not about user interfaces but the larger responsibility. What kind of society we are creating, where a small number of people have much more knowledge and understanding about very deep and intimate behaviors of all of us?”
The room’s first section, “Something to Hide,” challenges the perception of technology users who say they have nothing to hide. “What is this ‘nothing’ that we are really talking about?” Tuszynski asked. “What is the data that you are generating? Is this empowering you? Is this data the consumer is generating actually giving the same picture of you that you want to give them?”
For his book, Where The F**K Was I?, artist James Bridle complied maps of his locations for a full year using the log from his iPhone. In Aram Bartholl’s “Forgot your password?”, viewers can peruse 4.6 million passwords from a 2012 LinkedIn hack, arranged alphabetically into eight books. The Unfit Bits project showed how a Fitbit could be “hacked” through a metronome to provide fake activity information to insurance companies.
“Something to Hide” features interactive art projects displayed as if in a high-end retail boutique. According to Tuszynski, this was designed to give visitors a familiar access point. “Everybody knows what happens when you walk into Apple store. You can touch things and explore them, and talk to people around you,” he says. “Art puts you off: it’s too high-brow, it’s not accessible. And I think accessibility is super important.”
Further in the exhibit, a section called “Normal is Boring” explores the businesses behind data collection. A model of Mark Zuckerberg’s house encased in glass shows the contrast between Facebook’s policy of openness and Zuckerberg’s extreme personal privacy, while a multicolored web visualizes Alphabet’s many acquisitions. “The Fertility Chip,” a microchip to remotely control a woman’s fertility backed by The Gates Foundation, asks viewers to consider the level of control and accountability that tech companies may one day possess.
Near the back of the exhibit, “Big Momma” features nine surveillance applications that are already on the market. Some, like Silver Mother, are aimed directly at consumers. Silver Mother continually monitors the temperature, sleep, hydration and activity of senior citizens. Others come from government or nonprofit groups, like the iris scanning technology recently implemented by the United Nations to track Syrian refugees in Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp.
Although these and other applications of surveillance technology do carry some positive benefit for the user, Tuszynski emphasized, the main takeaway from the exhibit was for consumers in this new climate to reflect on how their data is being used and what it might potentially say about them. “This level of reflection is important,” he said. “And also understanding that although it is empowering us at the time of using it, it is creating this massive environment that we have little understanding of.”
Although this environment is obscure to most consumers, Tuszynski points out that consumer technology use can have effects higher up the chain. In sectors like financial services, banks offer more protection and transparency because consumer expectations are much higher. “We have power because the way we use the services define the way that that data is used, and the possibilities,” he said.
The Glass Room, which has been extended from its additional run due to popular demand, is just one of several signs that today’s consumers are increasingly concerned about controlling the amount of data they provide to companies. Digital privacy workshops have popped up from New York to San Francisco, while encryption messaging app Signal saw a 400% spike in installations in the week following the US election. A similar app, Wickr, recently launched an encrypted Slack competitor.
In a recent survey from J. Walter Thompson’s SONAR™, 94% of UK and US consumers responded that they would like more control over who can access their data, showing a need for products that put users at the helm of privacy controls. “We’ve been doing this for 14 years and I can tell you that finally, it’s different,” Tuszynski said. “I think it’s the same thing as with climate change or any larger problem that is invisible. These things take a lot of time, and they’re hidden because of certain interests. I think what people are seeing right now is that it has impact on them.”
The Glass Room is open through December 18th. Download the Innovation Group’s Control Shift report for more on the relationship between consumers and technology.