Privacy Through Visibility: Disrupting NSA Surveillance With Algorithmically Generated “Scary” Stories
Presented at ELO14
2014 Electronic Literature Organization Conference
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
July 19, 2014
Computational artists engage the politics of networked communication through code. By creating net art, hacktivist projects, and “tactical media,” artists illuminate the dark sides of networks, challenge the notion of the network as a liberating force, and propose mechanisms for tweaking the “evil media” these networks facilitate. A primary example of network-based politics is the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) email surveillance efforts recently revealed by Edward Snowden. Using systems to examine our text-based digital communications, the NSA algorithimically collects and searches everything we write and send in a futile effort to predict behaviors based on words in emails. Large collections of words have thus become codified as something to fear, as an indicator of intent. This presentation will explore the methods of artists who engage the politics of digital surveillance using algorithmically generated language, and will explore the question of whether computationally produced text can combat computational text analysis. A focus will be the author’s project ScareMail, a web browser extension that makes email “scary” in order to disrupt NSA surveillance. Extending Google’s Gmail, the project adds to every new email’s signature an algorithmically generated narrative containing a collection of probable NSA search terms. This “story” acts as a trap for NSA programs like PRISM and XKeyscore, forcing them to look at nonsense. Each email’s story is unique in an attempt to avoid automated filtering by NSA search systems. ScareMail attempts to disrupt the NSA’s surveillance efforts by making NSA search results useless. Searching is about finding the needles in haystacks. By filling all email with “scary” stories, ScareMail thwarts NSA search algorithms by overwhelming them with too many results. If every email contains the word “plot,” or “facility,” for example, then searching for those words becomes a fruitless exercise. A search that returns everything is a search that returns nothing of use. ScareMail thus proposes, through its algorithmic generation of “scary” stories, an alternative model of privacy built on visibility and noise rather than encryption and silence.
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