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told you so....

Grateful to Marc Garrett for drawing my attention (via the Netbehaviour mailing list) to Hasan Elahi, who after a brush with the FBI has put his entire life on his website. (The story was also carried on O'Reilly Radar last year.)

According to a 'Wired' interview, Elahi was put on the US terrorist watch list after a conufsion of identities. To prevent himself having trouble at airports, he took to phoning the FBI and alerting them before each trip he took, then he decided to put this and a lot more information about himself on his website,

"I've discovered that the best way to protect your privacy is to give it away," he says.... Elahi relishes upending the received wisdom about surveillance. The government monitors your movements, but it gets things wrong. You can monitor yourself much more accurately. Plus, no ambitious agent is going to score a big intelligence triumph by snooping into your movements when there's a Web page broadcasting the Big Mac you ate four minutes ago in Boise, Idaho. "It's economics," he says. "I flood the market."

He's done it sensibly too. If you look at his site, it's not the most user-friendly of sites. It takes time to navigate. And whilst he gives a lot of information, it's not done in a way that makes machine searching easy. For instance, one link shows you about 100 images of urinals, each with the date when (presumably) he used it. Another shows a similar number of images of meals, each with a date and place, or of airline meals, each with flight details. You could work out quite a lot about his movements from all this, but you'd have to sit down to do it: it's not readily machine readable. His credit card purchases are on line too. (If he'd been kinder he'd just have posted one nice spreadsheet giving times, places, flights, amounts spent, etc, that the FBI could have written a robot to read.) It's largely done in Flash, so there is no underlying html to view or 'scrape'.

According to the Wired interview, they read it, too. "For now, though, Big Brother is still on the case. At least according to Elahi's server logs. "It's really weird watching the government watch me," he says. But it sure beats Guantanamo."

As a piece of conceptual art it's fascinating. Looking at all those airlne meals, you realise that life is like that: a round of toilets, airports, places passed through and forgotten. Yes, you can make a spime of anything, even yourself, and when you do it all seems very different. You forget these things for a reason. I don't have a picture of my own great-grandfather, and as far as I know none ever existed. But after only a hundred years, we can now have images - theoretically for ever - of every minute of everyone's life.

Elahi is following in the footsteps of Life Sharing, the 2000/2003 art work by Eva and Franco Mattes (aka 0100101110101101.ORG). Their site says:
"Started in the year 2000 and active uninterruptedly until 2003, Life Sharing is 0100101110101101.ORG's personal computer turned into a real time sharing system. Any visitor has free and unlimited access to all contents: texts, images, software, 01's private mail. One can get lost in this huge data maze."

They take an almost Futurist pride in this:"Life Sharing must be considered a proof ab absurdo. The idea of privacy itself is obsolete. A computer connected to the Net is an instrument that allows the free flow of information. This is its aim. Anything blocking this free flow shall be considered an obstacle to be overcome." - and their main concern seems to have been about copyright on art works.

However, I can tell that Mr Elahi spent $8.91 on the 18th of May 2007 at Starbucks in Washington DC, and that the next day he made two purchases in Bloomsburg PA.

As I pointed out recently, this will one day become an embarrassment to the police, who will need more and more time to analyse the data available to them.

In one sense we should all follow Mr Elahi's example. Sadly, as a comment on Tim O'Reilly's post points out, "whilst you may or may not trust your own country's public servants -- in this case the FBI -- do you really trust everyone online ?"


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