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That Lamp Over There? It's Spying On You

That Lamp Over There? It's Spying On You

For some reason, people find it very creepy and intrusive to be spied on in the physical world despite being generally complacent while every intimate digital conversation is potentially monitored and recorded by the Man. But it's true.
To try and reconcile that discrepancy, and wake people up to the reality of the surveillance panopticon the future is driving toward, a pair of artists slyly installed lamps fitted with wi-fi enabled microphones in a handful of public places around New York City that have been recording and live-tweeting people's conversations for the last seven months.
"There's something in the lamp."
— Conversnitch (@conversnitch) October 5, 2013
The smart lamps are basically a Raspberry Pi microprocessor with a mic, which Kyle McDonald of New York University and Brian House of the Rhode Island School of Design installed themselves all sketchy-like with black gloves around town.
Image: Screenshot from Vimeo/Kyle McDonald

The recorded audio is automatically streamed to an Amazon Mechanical Turk team, which immediately transcribes the data and posts snippets of the conversations on the "Conversnitch" Twitter feed. There seems to be a lot about the weather (namely, the last dying gasp of winter here in New York), and otherwise mostly money, work, and relationships, as you might expect.
"She sounds like a keeper, honestly. You just have to let her know you want it to be serious."
— Conversnitch (@conversnitch) April 18, 2014
Clearly ethical and legal implications of this project are murky to say the least. “We recognize that this device can be used in an illegal way, and we will not admit to using it in that way,” McDonald said last October at an art exhibit, according to Wired's report this morning.
McDonald was cagey about offering up any information about the project. “It has potentially been deployed in various places," he said.
The lamp fixtures are currently eavesdropping on people in a McDonalds, a library, a private bedroom, and Washington Square Park, as a recent Vimeo video on the project shows.

It's meant as a form of civic disobedience, to make a point about government mass surveillance—that point being, if an inanimate object spying on your private conversations makes you feel violated, surely the NSA and tech giants doing so is even worse. What if the listening ear behind the Internet of Snooping Things wasn't a couple activist artists, but the FBI?
"As I'm sure you are aware, we mentioned government at this point."
— Conversnitch (@conversnitch) October 6, 2013
Granted, the government probably isn't wire-tapping the light fixtures in public restaurants, but the concept of 'nowhere to hide' isn't far-fetched at all. Already anyone standing close enough with a Smartphone can record and film what you do and say, and soon enough that'll extend to anyone with a smart watch, wearable gadget, embedded chip, augmented contact lens, and so on.
That's a shift in social norms we've only begun to address, and so McDonald and House are using the legally shady Conversnitch to "bridge the gap between online and IRL," the Vimeo video says. Electronic eavesdropping, even of the lamp variety, remains unsettling, especially as the physical and virtual worlds meld ever closer together.
TOPICS: state of surveillanceinternet of thingsconversnitchtwitterprivacypower


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