Hasan Elahi 

On digital privacy, hiding in plain sight and smartphones as master spies


Hasan Elahi


A few months after the 9/11 terror attacks, Hasan Elahi stepped off a plane in Detroit, only to be detained by the FBI. A tipster alerted the bureau Elahi had been stockpiling explosives in a Florida storage unit, agents later told him. The allegations were untrue, but triggered months of investigations into the life of the artist and lecturer, and years of insecurity: What if there were another allegation, miscommunication or mix-up that landed him in a detention cell?

Elahi's solution was Tracking Transience, an art project that posts virtually every detail of his life online, from his exact location to photos of the meal he just ate—when he spoke with Boise Weekly, he was cooking potatoes, roasted eggplant and couscous with "Turkish-ish flavors." Elahi's response to the sustained inquiries into his life by the security state is now years old. Before his art talk, Hiding in Plain Sight, at Surel's Place at Boise State University in the Liberal Arts Bldg., Room 106, on Thursday, Sept. 21, and his featured talk at Slammers in the Slam by Story Story Night on Tuesday, Sept. 26, he opened up about his digitally transparent lifestyle and the morality of smartphones.

Why post everything about yourself on a website?

My reaction was not unlike anybody else's initial reaction of being accused of being a terrorist suspect. You get angry about it, but after a couple of weeks, then what? I think that's where it hit me: I could do something about it. I could turn this around and that's the approach I took with it.

Why should we redefine privacy in the internet age?

You may be the most secretive person in the world, but that doesn't prevent other people from publishing information about you. When you look at what's in your phone, your phone is a master spy. It takes care of so many bits of detail.

What's left of your privacy?

I'm telling you everything, but I'm also telling you almost nothing, and the rationale there is that what I'm giving you requires so much interpretation. There's a hyperspecificity to the information I'm presenting, but I'm telling you everything and nothing simultaneously. It's a temporary fix because these algorithms will only get more sophisticated. When you look at a photo I'm putting up [on my website], you may not know what I'm thinking or feeling. Right now I'm adding noise to the system and hiding in plain sight. It's camouflage.

Is there a spiritual element to this?

The French root for the word 'surveillance' is over-watching or watching from above. The concept of God watching has been embedded in us for thousands of years. Of course there's a camera watching over us. You behave because you're being watched, and whether that watching is from a surveillance camera or being watched from a being higher, you're still being watched.

What do you make of leakers like Julian Assange, Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning?

We've always had these types of leaks. If you go a few hundred years back, the conversation was verbal or you could keep paper secret. Digital information isn't copied: It replicates. That's the collision that's taking place.

How do you cope with the digital/analog problem?

I think we're going to have to have a different set of value judgments. It's not necessarily a better/worse situation. It's the fact that they're different and we have to be open to that adaptation. Everybody knows everybody's business. We can handle that when it takes place in a small town, but we struggle with that when it's billions of people simultaneously.

How do you turn this into art?

My project was never intended to be an art project. A better way to describe this is, 'How might someone who is an artist react to this happening in their life?' I've always felt the role of an artist is to hold a mirror up to society and depict what is happening around them.

What am I not asking?

It was just a few years ago, I was talking to this museum, and they said, 'You have so much of your information in the public, but we need your date of birth for the labels.' You'd assume on the internet that's one of the first things you'd find out about people, but there's a very specific set of information I've decided to present. It's a large footprint, but a very controlled footprint.

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