'LOCA: SET TO DISCOVERABLE'
Text by Drew Hemment, John Evans, Mika Raento, Theo Humphries
"In the inverted logic of the post-Orwellian city, Loca agents, software and human, decrypt the hertzian passages of its own inhabitants. For better or for worse?"
Steve Dietz, Artistic Director, ZeroOne
Loca: Set To Discoverable is an arts-based group project on grass-roots, pervasive surveillance which seeks to expose the disconnect between people and the trails of digital identities they leave behind. The premier full presentation at ISEA2006 and ZeroOne in August 2006 combined art installation, software engineering, activism, pervasive design, hardware hacking, SMS poetry, sticker art and ambient performance.
Loca is an exercise in everyday surveillance, tracking digital bodies in physical space. It examines what happens when it is easy for everyone to track everyone, when surveillance can be affected by consumer level technology within peer-to-peer networks without being routed through a central point. The Loca project walks the knife edge of locative media, itself involving surveillance. But it does not create a new surveillance potential, it only reveals what was already
Pervasive surveillance is potentially both sinister and positive at the same time. New ways of organising media and of communicating with each other become possible when the context of the media and the user is known. But also as a consequence ever more can be surveilled and ultimately controlled. Loca seeks to lay bare the truth of mobile social software, to highlight how it can function as surveillance, without collapsing this ambiguity. It is an experiment that does not either blindly celebrate the technology, or claim that the technology is inherently bad. It aims to raise awareness of the networks we inhabit, to provoke people into questioning them, and help people equip themselves to deal with the ambiguity of pervasive media
THE LOCA NODE NETWORK
One element of Loca is a node network, through which Loca observes people’s movements by tracking the position of the Bluetooth enabled devices that they carry. One principle of the project is that people should be able to participate through their own mobile phone withouttheir device needing to be modified in any way, either through installing Loca software or by altering settings.
Loca deploys a cluster of interconnected, self-sufficient Bluetooth nodes within inner city urban environments. In San Jose the nodes were encased in concrete and fixed to street lights in the park, at pedestrian crossings on road intersections, and buried in the earth by a popular bar terrace. Others were deployed in hotels, cafes, and popular destinations such as cinemas. They were hidden in flower pots, underneath a chaise longue, and in the foot of the podium used by the cinema ticket collector. The Loca team was constantly visible about the city centre in bright orange workman overalls, climbing ladders, in and out of hotels, deploying and maintaining the network. A production line was created to recharge spare car batteries, and constant maintenance was needed to replace batteries and reset the software.
The Loca art group were then able to track and communicate with the residents of San Jose via their cellphone without their permission or knowledge, so long as they have a Bluetooth device set to discoverable. Over 7 days more than two thousand five hundred people were detected more than half a million (500,000) times, enabling the team to build up a detailed picture of their movements.
The Loca node network enables people to explore pervasive surveillance environments in a performative way. A person walking through the city centre hears a beep on their phone and glances at the screen. Instead of an SMS alert they see a message reading:
"We are currently experiencing difficulties monitoring your position: please wave your network device in the air."
Loca engages people by responding to urban semantics, the social meanings of particular places:
"You walked past a flower shop and spent 30 minutes in the park, are you in love?"
People were sent messages from a stranger with intimate knowledge of their movements, written in such a way as to leave them unsure if they had not unwittingly joined a social network called Loca. Over the course of the week the tone of the messages changed, the all-knowing friend turning out to be one friend too many, "coffee later?" changing to "r u ignoring me?".
The purpose of the messages is to make the presence of the Loca network known, and to illustrate the types of data that can be gathered and the inferences that can be drawn from it. These messages could highlight people’s daily routines e.g. “You have been here for an hour”, reveal the ‘others’ within the network e.g. “You can be seen by 4 other devices”, or even be used to control people’s behaviour e.g. “Please wave your phone in the air”. The messages also made the Loca project accountable for what it had done, and provided channels for feedback and further enquiry.
Loca aims to lightly touch large numbers of people. The aim is not complex interaction, but subtle affect, and only a minority of people will receive it, let alone give it any more than passing thought. Loca is like a picture glanced at sideways, a message caught in the corner of the eye, or a mosquito swatted on the arm.
People who accepted the Bluetooth connection received a longer message which explained the background to the project, and gave directions to the Loca stand at the exhibition venue where people could scan their device and receive a personalised printout of their movements. At ZeroOne some individual logs were over 100 meters long.
As the first project of its kind, the system was fragile, and some higher levels of interactivity could not be achieved. None the less the system was operational for the full length of the exhibition, during which more than half a million data points were recorded.
Loca does not ask people in advance; it does not want their permission. Not to obtain people's permission was a difficult decision, but it was felt necessary for the validity of the project - which sets out to make visible the limits of what is technically, legally and ethically possible, and to put people's responses to pervasive surveillance environments at the centre of the debate.
STICKERS: AD HOC STICKY NETWORKS
A second element of Loca involves stickers. The experience of the node network is intangible, it is to do with what is not seen. The stickers make visible the traces of digital identities that people leave behind. The stickers are visible to all, not just to those with a Bluetooth device, making the pervasive surveillance transparent. At ISEA2006 trails of stickers appeared across down town San Jose.
The Loca stickers enable people to become Loca “agents”, playing on the double meaning of secret agent and software agent. They are able to act out one of the functions of the Loca network - to become a small piece of surveillance code - introducing an element of participatory, urban play.
People scan for Bluetooth devices using their own mobile phone or laptop, by using Bluetooth in the usual way. On the Loca stickers they record the name of any uniquely named device they detect, and the time and date of detection. The stickers can then be stuck at the point of detection to leave tangible evidence of the presence of the digital identity, the time at which it was detected and the detection event itself. The process is simple, and can be undertaken by anyone with a Bluetooth device.
An important question about 'responsibility' arises when individuals use their own name for the name of their device. The Loca node network does not publish any personal information. But a person's name written on the sticker is personal data. Is the 'publisher' of that information the user of the device, the person writing on the sticker, or the Loca team who produced the stickers for them to write on?
SJPD: "BOOKED IN EVIDENCE"
On the final day of ZeroOne a node left in the downtown Sainte Claire Hotel was taken away by San Jose Police Department as a suspicious object and "booked in evidence". This took place on the same weekend in August 2006 that 3 Palestinian-Americans were arrested for possession of 1000 cellphones, which the authorities suspected were to be used for surveillance or as bomb detonators. Technology is often imprinted with our hopes and fears, and it says a lot about contemporary America that the SJPD chanced upon Loca’s genuine DIY surveillance, but it was the people with Arabic names who were detained. The police revised the status of the node from "Evidence" to "Found Property" and the artists were able to retrieve it, complete with a log of data on people's movements at the police station, whether they be officers, criminals or simply people passing by.
THE LOCA PACK: SURVEILLANCE CODE
All Loca code and tools are made publicly available in the form of the Loca Surveillance Pack. The Loca Pack provides for both surveillance and counter-surveillance. It makes Loca transparent, providing blueprints and code. It also informs people about the scale of the threat. Fear is used by politicians to create docile subjects. We want to show people that they can take back control.
Dont do harm to anyone. We will find you.
RESPONSES TO LOCA
Loca was interested in people's responses. These varied across the different project presentations, which included San Jose plus earlier proof-of-concept presentations in Helsinki and London. Some learned for the first time through the project how Bluetooth functioned, and were compelled to switch their Bluetooth device to undiscoverable. Responses ranged from being intrigued, to shocked, to dismissive.
Previous projects on surveillance, such as ZKM's CTRL:SPACE exhibition, have highlighted how we today live between two polarities of scopophobia and scopophilia - fear of being observed mixed with a seemingly endless desire to reveal ourselves, as epitomised by both reality TV and social software. Loca found that these responses are often intertwined, and that locative media can inspire each in equal measure.
A discussion on Loca in Seoul, South Korea highlighted how debates on "privacy" can seem alien outside of Europe, and yet the issues of "disclosure" that Loca explores were found to be relevant to the participants in Asia, just framed in a different way. Most critical of Loca was Shami Chakrabati, Director of Liberty and one of the UK's leading civil liberties advocates, who discussing the project on BBC World Service's Digital Planet, was concerned about the distress it
could have caused.
Loca is an anticipated accident. The project was initiated in 2003, out of an interest in how surveillance and social control emerge as a residue or unforeseen effect of otherwise virtuous information systems and network technologies. Then it sat in waiting for the accident to happen.
The accident was when the "Aware": http://aware.uiah.fi/
"ContextPhone": http://www.cs.helsinki.fi/group/context/ collaboration started generating surveillance data that was unforeseen by its designers. When users published media to Aware directly from their phone, using software called 'ContextPhone', it automatically annotated this media with contextual information derived from the phones actual surroundings, e.g. time, GSM cell-ID (an approximate geographical Locator), and the bluetooth environment,
i.e. a list of the Bluetooth devices around at the time. The premise of Aware and ContextPhone (themselves developed by Loca participants) is that the social context of the media can be used both to situate the media and to help organise it. The Bluetooth information would allow queries like 'show me all the pictures captured when I was in the vicinity of that person', which would be useful in a wide variety of contexts - if, for example, someone wished to gain an overview on an event at which they were present. This contextual information leads to unforeseen consequences, such as the 'accidental' tracking of people present during the media arts festival ISEA2004 in Helsinki. If someone wanted to reproduce what Aware/ContextPhone had been found to do, but for commercial gain or unethical ends, how hard would it be to implement technically and legally?
Loca examines the surveillance potential of different consumer platforms. In San Jose it focused on Bluetooth for a number of reasons: because Bluetooth has been designed in a way that is problematic for privacy management; working with Bluetooth rather than GSM makes possible some independence from the mobile phone companies; and because Bluetooth is the first 'everyday' network technology that enables people to be tracked, and to track each other, within the physical environment. The privacy trade off found in many contemporary forms ofsurveillance (you need to incrementally give up ever more privacy in order to access new services) is common to all network technologies, but here it is not just data but also bodies in space that are being tracked. (WLAN is similar, but is not always on and is less mobile; GSM tracking remains largely the preserve of the mobile phone companies; RFID (at this time) is still
not established in the consumer domain.)
Loca works independently from the mobile phone companies and other service providers so that it is clear to participants that Loca is not swayed by commercial interests in technology and also to show that the project can be done in a low-cost way. Each node is built using readily available, cheap parts, and is encased in concrete in order to be deployed in the urban environment. Loca does not need any special privileges nor to break the law - nothing stops one from
Bluetooth scanning; in fact it is part of the protocol, whereas GSM is prohibited. All you need to participate - to watch or be watched - is a Bluetooth device.
An aim for Loca is to make people aware that they have agency, that they can avoid being tracked by turning off their device or switching their Bluetooth device to 'invisible'. But Loca also sets out to reveal the limit of this agency. With all technologies that are susceptible to pervasive surveillance techniques, the only way to opt- out of the surveillance is to switch off altogether, which is often impractical, and means losing the benefits of that technology. This was not inevitable, and we need to ask why these technologies are not privacy preserving: why, for example, do all network technologies use permanent unique IDs; who made those decisions, on what agenda, who has it benefited? Equally, computers that are invisible are bad for privacy: do you want the things that are tracking you to be hidden? Loca advocates the development of countermeasures and of better privacy management provisions in policies and protocols. An issue with Bluetooth is that Bluetooth scanning is anonymous. Should not the person or device doing the scanning have to provide their identity before they obtain the identity of the devices that they are scanning? Many such measures will involve a cost, so unless an argument is made and demand exists, then it will not happen. Loca highlights the asymmetry involved, the lack of reciprocity between the person scanning and the person scanned, and enables people to experience the unsettling distance between disclosure and connection.
Loca explores peer-to-peer surveillance, and yet, like many such projects, it is peer-to-peer only to a point. Surveillance data is generated independently on each node, but then that data is relayed between the nodes and a server via the GSM network. This does not compromise the principle, however. The surveillance is independent, a server is only used for convenience within this project as it simplifies implementation, and the data could be relayed between nodes in alternative ways, but with less mobility, or higher cost. This would lead to a new set of parameters, alternative questions, and a change in the nature of the project.
Locative Media is principally concerned with the context of location. Projects which can be labelled as 'Locative' use or create technologies that enable users to log and/or publish this contextual media. Users of such systems reveal personal information that is pertinent to the project, but importantly this information can be repurposed by third parties. In failing to address this issue many locative projects leave themselves open to criticism over the potential re-use of such personal information. The critical point is that such projects ask and/or require users to give up this information for a perceived benefit, but do not address the (often unforeseen) consequences of these actions - and the principle unforeseen consequence of Locative Media's demand for logging location and time is that it creates systems susceptible to various forms of surveillance.
Locative Media has yet to fully address its own critical context. Loca seeks to make a contribution to these debates, while at the same time critically assessing its own methodology and the risks of its approach. How can creative work with surveillance technologies add to or distract from traditional campaigning strategies? Does it risk getting the public used to a new control technology prior to its deployment in a coercive way? How may both positive and troubling sides of a new technology be simultaneously explored?
Loca asks: how do people respond to being tracked and observed? How ready are people to observe others? Who is the user, and how? What does it mean to participate in this project? Do we get fear of surveillance, disinterest, scopophobia or scopophilia? What kinds of behaviour is this technique suited to mapping, and what behaviours is it not suited to? What kinds of behaviour can evade this form of surveillance? How does the contextual information we can detect (such as Location, time spent in one place, etc) relate to people's everyday experiences of the environment? What happens in-between physical, embodied space and the digital space of abstract data? What is the relationship between the embodiment of the mobile user and the abstraction of the data we capture?
Pervasive surveillance has the potential to be both sinister and positive, at the same time. The intent of Loca is to equip people to deal with the ambiguity and to make informed decisions about the networks that they populate.
THE NEW YORK TIMES ON LOCA
"LOCA ... is a surveillance project that talks back. A crew plans to plant some 30 Bluetooth scanners encased in concrete blocks at bus stations, in shops and at other busy spots in San Jose. Carrying a Bluetooth-discoverable phone within 25 feet of the scanners can trigger the receipt of a surprisingly intimate message like: 'You walked past the flower shop and spent 30 minutes in the park. Are you in love?' Such notes are not sent via text messaging but through a subversive technique called Bluejacking, in which a Bluetooth device's name is replaced with a short message meant to be picked up by neighboring devices. Part of the point is to catch people by surprise, jolting them out of their daily rituals with a Dada-worthy prank. Another goal, said Mr. Hemment ... is to show people how much data they may be revealing every time they turn on their phones. 'In an office you can shut the door for privacy,' Mr. Hemment said. ''In conversation you can hide a facial expression. But with the new digital technologies, you may have no idea how much you're giving away.'' If this sounds more like an educational project than a work of art, Mr. Hemment does not seem to mind. He said he doesn't make hard and fast distinctions between the two: he considers LOCA a policy-minded research effort with the art serving as its public face." Jori Finkel, 'An Exhibition Where Paintings Are So Last Century', New York Times, August 6, 2006