Category Archives: security

Cutting through the ‘smart’ walls and fences of Fortress Europe

Recent European immigration policies seem to be mostly dedicated to making external borders as impenetrable as possible, through the hardening of the conditions of entry and, most notably since the 2015 refugee panic, through naval operations in the Mediterranean and the erection of fences and walls. The numbers of migrants reaching European shores in search of asylum have dropped sharply over the past couple of years but the desire to deny them a chance to seek asylum is still fueling the xenophobic rants of far-right politicians like Viktor Orban and Matteo Salvini.

Dani Ploeger, SMART FENCE at Bruthaus Gallery, 2019

Dani Ploeger, Still from Border Operation, 2018-19, HD video, 3′. Documentation of action at Hungarian border fence

Artist Dani Ploeger has been looking at the fences recently built to toughen “Fortress Europe.” In particular the ones that use heat and movement sensors, sophisticated cameras and other so-called ‘smart’ technologies to shut off “illegal immigrants.” The hi-tech terminology used to describe theses fences obscure their inherent violence. Moreover, Ploeger writes, “their framing as supposedly clean and precise technologies is symptomatic of a broader cultural practice that uses narratives of technologization to justify means of violence” (think of the military drones and their supposedly surgical precision).

Last December, the artist traveled to the fortified border fence that Hungary had raised along its southern border with Serbia to keep out migrants and asylum seekers. The barbed-wire is capable of delivering electric shocks and is equipped with heat sensors, cameras and loudspeakers that shout inhospitable messages in several languages.

Once at the border fence, Ploeger cut off and ran away with a piece of razor wire from the border fence. This was a daring action: damaging the border fence is a criminal offence under Hungarian law.

Dani Ploeger, European Studies #1 (sensors). Exhibition view at Bruthaus Gallery

Dani Ploeger, European Studies #1 (sensors). Exhibition view at Bruthaus Gallery

Ploeger recently exhibited that piece of fence as well as a series of related works at Bruthaus Gallery in Belgium. His SMART FENCE project uses old and new media, from celluloid film to augmented reality, to explore the way we delegate our responsibility towards asylum-seekers to these tech-enhanced structures. Along the way, the artist also attempts to deconstruct the techno-ideologies that are often inscribed in these technologies of control and exclusion.

Dani Ploeger, SMART FENCE. Exhibition view at Bruthaus Gallery

The exhibition at Bruthaus Gallery is sadly over but i got in touch with the artist a couple of weeks ago to know more about SMART FENCE:

Hi Dani! I often have the feeling that we are a bit hypocritical in Europe, at least in the areas that are not in close proximity to these new borders. We point the finger at the US-Mexico wall and turn a bind eye at our own manifestations of intolerance and inhospitality. Do you have any idea about how much the European public is concerned by these European border fences?

I was struck by how many visitors of the exhibition seemed to know very little to nothing about the border fences that have been erected around the EU in recent years, especially considering how much attention the Hungarian border project has received in the media. I wonder whether this is because many just don’t engage much with international news reports or if they forget news events quickly due to the constant bombardment with spectacular and shocking information in networked culture (Paul Virilio discusses this latter phenomenon in his book The Administration of Fear, 2012). Either way, I didn’t get the impression that many people assess the current discussions around the US-Mexico wall in relation to recent border reinforcement projects in the EU. This impression is just based on anecdotal experiences in my direct surroundings though. I don’t really know about ‘the European public’ in general, if such thing exists.
Possibly more disturbing than the finger pointing towards the US, I find the recurring suggestion that the Hungarian border fence would merely be a manifestation of the backwards politics of Victor Orban’s nationalist-conservative government and hence in essence actually be a very ‘un-European’ project. This perspective ignores that Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, is also active at the Hungarian border fence and that Greece, Spain and Latvia, among others, have built or are building similar fences, although these have not received as much media attention. In the end, these fences are quite convenient to many governments across the EU that want to restrict immigration.

Dani Ploeger, Border Operation, 2018-19. Exhibition view at Bruthaus Gallery

What is amusing in the video Border Operation is that you’re stealing a piece of razor wire and you’re doing in broad day light and don’t seem to be in great hurry, even when the car with the security officers arrives. Did you know what you were risking? And do you think that it would have been ok because you’re an artist so you have some licence? 

Interesting you see it like that. What I found somewhat funny is the indecisive and confused behaviour of the border patrol officers after I have left and they are just standing around, unable to do anything substantial because they are stuck behind their own fence. While I was at the fence, I was actually scared shitless, especially when the alarm loudspeakers switched on and the patrol car arrived, all within one minute from when I first touched the fence. My glove was stuck in the bit of razor wire I was trying to cut off though, and I was really quite determined not to go home empty handed, so that kept me a few seconds longer after they arrived. One of the guards was only about a metre and a half away on the other side of the fence though, and yelling at me, so I was close to leaving my glove behind and running off.

I had deliberately approached the fence slowly and casually before starting to cut in order not to make my intentions obvious right away. I figured that if I would run towards the fence through the 300 meters of open field next to it the video surveillance observers would be alarmed right away. I had planned and timed the action carefully the day before, based on an examination of the area around the fence, the frequency of the patrols and a little practice with my bolt cutter. My camera was attached upside down in a tree and my packaging material for the wire, first aid kit and various other materials were hidden behind the ruin of a house across the field. I did my best to stay cool during the action and to cut slowly and precisely without panicking. Nevertheless, I was so excited that I messed up and cut through a wrong bit at first (cutting concertina razor wire somehow isn’t as simple as it appears), struggled to get through the steel wire with my tiny cutter, and then I was surprised by how quickly the guards arrived. They seemed to come from nowhere.

A tricky thing was that the fence stands a short distance inside Hungarian territory, which means that border patrol officers may use pepper spray or fire rubber bullets at people who are messing with the fence from the outside. They can also operate on the outside if they go out through a gate about 100 meters from where I was. Therefore, I went away from the fence as quickly as possible once I got my bit of wire, and ran back to Serbian soil. In Serbia, I still had to walk for about half an hour to reach the main road though, partly through open fields. I hadn’t been able to find out through my contacts at the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees and Migration if the Hungarian border force is in contact with Serbian police, so this walk wasn’t very relaxing either. I had identified a few hide-outs along the way in case police would show up.

Damaging the border fence has been criminalized in Hungary in 2015, so I guess that in Hungary I would now be a fugitive criminal. Getting caught would probably have gotten me into some serious trouble and I don’t think saying that I’m an artist would have convinced them to just let me go.

In the end, I don’t believe they would push for a serious prison sentence or something like that though, both because I can’t imagine they’d find a single person action relevant enough and because it would lead to tensions with other EU countries. So rather than me being an artist I think my EU passport would have given me some leeway.

I actually think I was mainly scared to get a serious beating, or just in general to get caught by an unknown authority for doing something illegal. This is also where one of the most relevant aspects of doing this action lies for me.

When I watched video reportages about migrants cutting holes in the fence and running across, sometimes with entire families including small children, it hadn’t looked that scary to me. Thinking about what extreme challenges and dangers these people would have encountered on their journeys towards this border, getting rid of a bit of barbed wire and running across a few meters of border strip, with apparently the only serious risk being sent back, somehow seemed to be among the lesser challenges.

Considering how scared I was myself while merely stealing a bit of wire from this fence – not even trying to cross – makes apparent the extreme contrast between the relatively fear- and threat-free life many (Western) Europeans like myself are used to in comparison with the environments many migrants navigate. In this context, the lighthearted way in which some people and media speak of the supposedly gratuitous motivations of migrants traveling to Europe appears ridiculous: this is not a journey one would choose to undertake if the living conditions in the home country would be bearable.

Dani Ploeger, Sensitive Barrier (razor wire from Hungarian border, movement detector, electro-motor), 2019

Dani Ploeger, Sensitive Barrier (razor wire from Hungarian border, movement detector, electro-motor), 2019

Dani Ploeger, Sensitive Barrier (razor wire from Hungarian border, movement detector, electro-motor), 2019

I was very interested in the extract in the press material that mentions the violence that is enacted on humans and non-human animals. Could you explain how non-human animals suffer from the erection of these ‘smart fences’? 

Many animals, such as red deer, bears and wolves, used to have their grazing, hunting and migration routes through parts of EU borders that have now become impenetrable. The issue is not only that animals are no longer able to cross, but also that razor wire, which is the main component of the border fences throughout, is designed to deter humans. It is explicitly not intended for use against animals, because, unlike traditional barbed wire, they easily get stuck in it and die.

Dani Ploeger, European Studies #2 (wire). Exhibition view at Bruthaus Gallery

Dani Ploeger, European Studies #2 (wire). Exhibition view at Bruthaus Gallery

The AR technology used in European Studies #2 (wire) “was developed in collaboration with the AURORA project at the University of Applied Sciences Berlin with support from the European Union.” Isn’t it a bit ironic that the EU would contribute to a project that openly questions the management of its borders? Was everyone comfortable with the idea that you used EU money to criticise border control? 

This irony is important to me. The EU has an extensive and complex bureaucracy that regulates and manages funding for research, arts and other things. I see this as an important reason why there usually isn’t too much worrying among researchers or art producers about policy-critical work as part of funded research or art projects, as long as the work adheres to the immediate rules and regulations for the management of the grant. I.e. if there isn’t a written rule that says ‘your research may not criticize EU policies’ all is fine, because grant holders will be monitored and assessed by peers and bureaucrats, rather than politicians or other people with significant policy making power. This leaves some space to use funding for things that might go against the immediate interests of the Union.

At the same time, we shouldn’t overstate this critical or subversive potential though. In the end, actions like mine are usually only possible a long way down in the ‘funding-hierarchy’. My AR app was a tiny sub-project in the context of a large EU-funded research project. This larger project, the design and management of which I am not involved in, was the outcome of a successful bid under the “Strengthening the innovation potential in culture” scheme of the European Fund for Regional Development. As the title of the scheme already suggests, research projects will only be funded if their design demonstrates detailed and far-going endorsement of the economic-growth-driven interests that form an important aspect of the European Union’s raison d’être.

So I’d actually say that, in the end, the true irony of the seemingly subversive use of EU funding for my project primarily concerns the way in which a lot of critical artwork, including my own, is intertwined with government support structures for research and art that are increasingly driven by clearly defined economic objectives. These objectives are also reflected in restrictive migration policies, which are oftentimes based on prioritizing cutting costs over humanitarian considerations.

To what extent does the ‘successful artist’ of a neo-liberal cultural landscape (i.e. the one who gets access to funding and is exposed at funded events and venues) become complicit in the economy-cultural complex that ultimately shares responsibility for the excesses of violence and neo-colonial policies on and beyond the borders of the EU or, more generally, the Global North?

Dani Ploeger, Sensitive Barrier, detail (razor wire from Hungarian border, movement detector, electro-motor), 2019

These ‘smart’ technologies of ‘defense’ and the way they function elude visual representation. They make migration almost abstract. Your works, on the other hand, make their violence almost palpable. Have you not been tempted at any point to make the connection between the human and non-human animals who suffer from the deployment of these technologies more obvious and maybe also more (easily) emotional by adding the presence of migrants trying to go through them?

Many journalists and artists have done work that focuses directly on the human suffering in the context of these structures (suffering of non-human animals not so much). This work is very important, among others to counter the tendency to imagine migration as some kind of abstract phenomenon as you point out. But I think there are also aspects of the current problematics around migration that cannot be addressed adequately by this work, and which require different approaches.

Firstly, when the attention is focused on representations of migrants trying to cross the fence, architectural and technological aspects tend to move to the background. This is understandable and desirable – thank god engagement with human experience prevails over barbed wire and motion detectors – but it also means that the significant role of narratives and applications of technology in the ‘management’ of migration and territorial control remain under-examined.

Secondly, as I already mentioned above, I often find that when watching video and photo representations of migrants trying to break through these border fences the places and situations paradoxically seem a lot less threatening and violent than they actually are experienced in a material encounter. The material presence and digital close-up views of razor wire and the quasi-nostalgic analogue photographs of sensor installations in my work do by no means give access to the experience of encountering the border fence as a migrant. But I do hope that they offer an additional way to engage with the violent implications of the desire for closed borders, an engagement that operates more through a sense of haptic visuality, rather than emotional narratives.

Any upcoming project or field of research you’d like to share with us?

I see the work I presented at Bruthaus Gallery as the beginning of a longer project that looks into borders, technologies and their narratives, so I will probably make more work around this theme over the next year or so. In addition to the video I exhibited now, I made a 3D video recording of the action at the Hungarian border from first-person perspective with two action cams that were attached to my forehead. I will use this footage to make a work for VR headset which will engage more with the experience of stress and fear that I mentioned in response to your earlier question. Another thing I am working on at the moment is an AR app for public space. When you point your device at a replica of a sign from the border fence that reads “CAUTION: Electric fence” the app will construct a life-size 3D model of the border fence around this, so you are standing right next to it.

Later in the year, I will make a new work for a group exhibition at Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien in Berlin, titled Weapons of Art. For this, I am planning to travel to another part of the EU to look for fencing, but I don’t want to say anything more about that yet.

Thanks Dani!

Previous works by Dani Ploeger: e-waste, porn, ecology & warfare. An interview with Dani Ploeger and Global control, macho technology and the Krampus. Notes from the RIXC Open Fields conference.
See also: The System of Systems: technology and bureaucracy in the asylum seeking process in Europe, Watching You Watching Me. A Photographic Response to Surveillance and Transnationalisms – Bodies, Borders, and Technology. Part 2. The conference.

Handbook of Tyranny: a guide to everyday cruelties

Handbook of Tyranny, by Theo Deutinger, an architect, writer, lecturer, illustrator and designer of socio-cultural maps.

On amazon UK and USA.

Publisher Lars Müller writes: Handbook of Tyranny portrays the routine cruelties of the twenty-first century through a series of detailed non-fictional graphic illustrations. None of these cruelties represent extraordinary violence – they reflect day-to-day implementation of laws and regulations around the globe.

Every page of the book questions our current world of walls and fences, police tactics and prison cells, crowd control and refugee camps. The dry and factual style of storytelling through technical drawings is the graphic equivalent to bureaucratic rigidity born of laws and regulations. The level of detail depicted in the illustrations of the book mirror the repressive efforts taken by authorities around the globe.

The twenty-first century shows a general striving for an ever more regulated and protective society. Yet the scale of authoritarian intervention and their stealth design adds to the growing difficulty of linking cause and effect. Handbook of Tyranny gives a profound insight into the relationship between political power, territoriality and systematic cruelties.

Animals slaughtered per second worldwide and slaughterhouse floor plan

Animals slaughtered per second worldwide

The Handbook of Tyranny‘s infographics and texts bring to light the nonhuman entities that restrict, govern and guide our daily existence. They lay bare a vast ecosystem of coercion that is (often insidiously) interwoven into the fabric of cities, of society, of every day life.

Some of these ‘small cruelties’ are engineering innovations, others are small design tweaks. Some are massive and overwhelming, others are subtle, their unpleasantness concealed behind a veneer of propriety, comfort or security. Some affect the existence of only a limited part of humanity (the refugees or the prisoners, for example), others target each and everyone of us as we walk around the neighbourhood, go on holiday or look for a place to sit in the park.

Bunker Buster

Prison cells

We might resent some of these objects and strategies of control but that doesn’t mean that will will automatically condemn them. At least not if we are told that they have been designed to ensure our safety and protect us from undesirable behaviour.

Handbook of Tyranny is a sharp, enlightening and beautifully designed book. It told me about anti-injecting blue light, urine deflectors that ‘pee back‘ at you and bunker busters that delay their explosion until after they have penetrated layers of earth or concrete. It also made me think about the responsibility for the authoritarian features of modern life: they do not reside entirely into the hands of ‘the powers that be’ but also in the ones of architects, designers, engineers and, to a certain extent, the rest of us.

Theo Deutinger & Lars Müller Publishers present Handbook of Tyranny at Pakhuis de Zwijger

Refugee Camps

Crowd Control

Crowd Control

Walls & Fences

Related story: Book review – Unpleasant Design and Design and Violence. Part 2: violence where you wouldn’t expect it.

Forensic Fantasies, online scams and the fragilities of IoT. An interview with KairUs

Many of you have probably heard of Agbogbloshie, the biggest and most infamous e-waste dump in the world. That’s where most of the “Western” world’s electronics is (illegally) sent to rest and be dismantled by young people who ruin their health breathing toxic fumes and trying to salvage the precious metals our trash contains.

But our old bits and pieces of hardware don’t just contain copper and gold, they also hold personal, corporate and military information that can be retrieved and used by cyber criminals.

KairUs art collective Linda Kronman and Andreas Zingerle

The duo KairUs (artists/researchers Linda Kronman and Andreas Zingerle) traveled to Agbogbloshie in Ghana to investigate the issue of data breaches of private information.

The result of their research is Forensic Fantasies, a trilogy of artworks that use data recovered from hard-drives dumped in Agbogbloshie to answer the question: What happens to our data when we send a computer, an hard disk or any kind of other storage device to the garbage?

Forensic Fantasies trilogy: #2 Identity Theft, exhibited at Aksioma – Institute for Contemporary Art, Ljubljana, 2018. Photo: Janez Janša / Aksioma

The first chapter in the series, Not a Blackmail examines the possibility to identify the prior owner of a hard-drive and extort money from them (with emphasis on the word “possibility” they didn’t actually try and ransom the owner!) The second work, Identity Theft, focuses on the fraudulent online profiles created for romance scams. Finally, Found Footage Stalkers uses images retrieved from one of the hard-drives to create photo albums, as a direct reference to the traditional practice of using found footage to create new artworks.

There’s something very disturbing in Forensic Fantasies. The trilogy not only connects us with the after-life of our electronics but it also makes palpable a series of dangers that would otherwise appears far-fetched and abstract to most of us.

KairUs‘s work focuses on human computer and computer-mediated human-human interaction. Since 2010 they have investigated the issue of Internet fraud and online scams. Both of them are currently holding an Assistant Professor position at Woosong University in South Korea where they are also doing research on the vulnerabilities of Internet of Things and Smart Cities.

KairUs have an exhibition right now at Aksioma, everyone’s favourite cultural venue in Ljubljana, Slovenia. The show focuses on the Forensic Fantasies Trilogy but i’d recommend you check out the fascinating talk the duo gave at Aksioma a couple of weeks ago because it not only sums up and comment on the trilogy but also presents the artists’ ongoing research into the weaknesses and pitfalls of the much-hype Internet of Things.

Behind the Smart World: Artist talk by KairUs (Linda Kronman and Andreas Zingerle) at the Aksioma Project Space in Ljubljana on 14 February 2018

Hi Andreas and Linda! Your work Forensic Fantasies – #1: Not a Blackmail examines the possibility to blackmail the prior owner of a hard-drive. Why did you not send the hard drive back to its owner? What does the letter to the owner say?

A primary motivation to visit Agbogbloshie in the first place was to answer the questions; if it is possible to use or abuse the data on a hard-drive recovered from an e-waste dump. As we had read cases about US senators being blackmailed, company secrets exposed and recovered hard-drives from US military contractors found amongst e-waste in West Africa, we were curious if our e-waste is really such a data breach as these reports were conveying. For us, the artwork ‘Not a Blackmail’ from the ‘Forensic Fantasies’ trilogy is a proof of concept that it is possible to recover data from a hard-drive and with the help of social media profiles track current contact information of the former owner, so that this person can be contacted and then potentially blackmailed. Of course our intention was not to blackmail this person, which is made clear in the title of the artwork (‘Not a Blackmail’).

The whole Forensic Fantasies series is also about the idea of finding something sensitive or valuable on the hard-drives, and until one recovers the data there is always a chance, a fantasy of recollecting something important or of value, even scandalous. Much of the data we recovered and processed would be more or less boring for most of us in an other context, on the other hand the content of a hard-drive might still feel very personal and exposing for its former owner, so how important is it to expose this person? The name of the former owner is exposed through the artwork, but it is still common enough, avoiding a direct link to an individual. Keeping this in mind we have been thinking of ways to deliver the data back to the former owner in a way or another. Just sending the package might evoke a reaction to ignore us, so we are still waiting for opportunities to do it in a more personal way. As the artwork is still exhibited in this speculative format, we also have to think how it will be affected, how the art work changes if we actually manage to deliver the data to the owner.

The letter to the owner basically covers the story how we got our hands on his data, that we found personal and sensitive data on it that a criminal might use against him and that we decided to return the hard-drive to him.

Forensic Fantasies trilogy: #1 ‘Not a blackmail, exhibited at Aksioma – Institute for Contemporary Art, Ljubljana, 2018. Photo: Janez Janša / Aksioma

Forensic Fantasies trilogy: #1 ‘Not a blackmail, exhibited at Aksioma – Institute for Contemporary Art, Ljubljana, 2018. Photo: Janez Janša / Aksioma

Forensic Fantasies trilogy: #1 ‘Not a blackmail, exhibited at Aksioma – Institute for Contemporary Art, Ljubljana, 2018. Photo: Jure Goršič / Aksioma

One of the issues the trilogy revealed is the peril of not cleaning up or destroying hard drive before getting rid of it. How easy or difficult is it to do so exactly?

To physically destroy a hard-drive is the most secure way of getting rid of the data. There are hard-drive shredders or just drilling holes in the hard-drive is a common practice of companies, that are more aware of leaking data and want to prevent data breaches. One can also open the hard-drive and scratch the disc that contains data.

Of course if you ever saved anything in the cloud your data will be saved on hard-drives somewhere else, often copied on several locations. You will never have access to destroy these hard-drives, so we can only trust that companies have proper workflows of re-using and destroying hard-drives (this aspect also made us more aware of the materiality of the cloud).

Deleting data and emptying the virtual trash bin still allows data recovery. As long as data has not been overwritten by new data at least one time it is quite easy to recover, though recovered data is not organized which makes it more difficult to process. If a hard-drive is meant for re-use experts recommend to overwrite the data several times.

Data forensics have been able to recover data or parts of data in cases that seemed impossible such as broken hard-drives or discs destroyed by water. Yet this type of data rescue is time-consuming, needs special equipment and is expensive, whereas we were more interested in how easy it is to recover data and if data mining with very simple tools is possible at an e-waste dump.

Acquiring hard drives on the e-waste dump. Photo:

Could you tell us about people you met in Ghana who are also very concerned about the topics you are investigating?

What took us to Ghana in the first place is that we have been investigating internet fraud for a longer time in several of our artworks. West Africa is known for certain types of scams, but internet fraud, internet crime and scams in general are a global phenomena. People in Ghana are in general worried how trustworthy they are perceived online. Due to this bad reputation of a few scammers, service providers use the easiest way of dealing with this issue, blocking the IP-range of a whole country to access their webpage. Hence the general population is punished with quite insufficient means because with a bit of advanced knowledge this will not stop a scammer. We talked about this with several people we meet and also internet scam issues are discussed through popular culture, mainly so-called Nollywood films, that are mostly Nigerian and Ghanaian low budget films.

This perspective we try to bring forth in the second part of the trilogy ‘ID theft’ by compiling a found footage film from several Nollywood films dealing with this issue. These films are distributed as DVD’s everywhere in Ghana and are considered a very important channel for West Africans to reflect upon their own culture. Through the films it was also easier for us to discuss these issues with people we met, though in Ghana the scams were often blamed to be done by Nigerians living in Ghana. At the e-waste dump no questions were asked what we want to do with the hard-drives. As far as we talked with the workers there, they salvage and sort valuable metals such as copper cables or computer parts with gold and other metals, processors, hard-drives, etc. These parts are then sold in bulk. Hard-drives are most probably bought in bulk by data rescue companies for their spare parts. In general, mining data from the e-waste dump is probably very marginal and unknown by the general public in Ghana. A bigger concern is the illegal trade of e-waste from the US and Europe that ends up in West Africa.

Map: Global illegal waste traffic

The work involved discussions with other artists about the ethics of using this type of ‘stolen’ material. On the one hand, people have thrown it away so it’s fair game. On the other, personal data is very sensitive. So i’m wondering what these conversations concluded about the ethic of using this data in art works? Is it just a big no no or are there conditions that make it acceptable?

Gathering and bringing back the hard-drives from Ghana was one thing, but what do you do with it and how to share it with other artists? Together with the Linz-based net culture hub we organized an artlab where we invited individuals from a trusted network of EU-based artists to participate in the project. We met in Linz for the “Behind the smart world” research lab, spending together several days to have a look at the data and give time to people to discuss and find ways to work with it.

A central issue was the privacy of the former owners of the hard-drives. Together we found different aspects on the hard-drives interesting and also developed strategies to abstract the data through artistic processes. Experiments were done to sonify folder structures, record booting attempts of the disks themselves, collages of browser cache or ascii renderings of videos and images. There was also participants attending the artlab that decided not to work with the material feeling that they had to compromise their working ethics or concerned that their reputation in handling sensitive material trusted to them would be compromised in the future. We highly respected these individual decisions.

Working with this material the longest we decided to take a more provocative approach in our third artwork Found footage stalkers we unveil the photos from one of the hard-drives, giving very personal insights into the life and habits of its former owners. Flipping trough the photos from parties with friends, trips to amusement parks and Christmas celebrations with the family evoke a similar feeling to stalking someone unknown on social media. Despite the rather uninteresting photo material, one starts to create a story and attach a personality to these fragmented digital representations. By presenting the photos in albums we approach the material as ‘found footage’, the practice of gathering material from thrift shops, yard sales and flea markets for remixing and creating new artworks, something artist have done for generations. Hence the artwork confronts earlier practices of using ‘found footage’ with now digital materials found amongst our trash. In the end, everyone has to decide for themselves how to deal with the data and what do with it. Artworks using the data from the Agbogbloshie hard-drives were shown for the first time in the ‘Behind the Smart World’ exhibition at the Art meets radical openness (AMRO) festival.

Artlab at in Linz, Austria. Photo:

Artlab at in Linz, Austria. Photo:

Forensic Fantasies trilogy: #3 Found footage stalker, exhibited at Aksioma Project Space. Photo: Janez Janša / Aksioma

Your ongoing research in South Korea, titled The Internet of Other People’s Things is, i think, a very relevant and important one because it lays bare the pitfalls of the internet of things, especially when deployed on the scale of a whole city like Songdo. How much awareness is there of that problem in Europe, among city developers, members of the public, tech companies, etc?

South Korea is one of the rapidly developing, tech-driven Asian states, with the second fastest and most connected society in the world, when you look at average internet connection speed and active social media penetration. At the same time, it’s a very young democracy, everything is driven by the government and market with a top-down approach, not focussing on the people who shall live in smart cities or use IoT devices on a daily basis. Cities like Songdo are built from scratch, supported by big tech companies amongst others IBM, CISCO and LG. This hyper-connected urban environments path the way to technocratic governance and city development, corporatization of city governance, technological lock-ins and hackable ‘pan-optic’ cities.

In Europe on the other hand, we see a much more inclusive development where citizens and communities become a vital part of city developments. Citizens are the ultimate actuators of a city. How are citizens involved in co-design collaborations with private corporations and the public sector to build better cities? Around this topics we are working on a publication where we seek submissions from researchers, artists, hackers, makers, activists, developers, and designers that explore vulnerabilities in IoT devices and other embedded systems e.g. in smart cities. We aim to bring artworks, projects, and essays together to create new critical perspectives on ubiquitous technologies. The full open call can be found on our website.

A view over the ‘central park’ of Songdo. Photo:

Not functioning automated vacuum waste collection system in Songdo. Photo:

Could you give a few example of the dangers you see in this massive investment in building ‘smart’ cities out of scratch and implementing IoT in our cities and homes? Do you think it is doomed to fail and be hacked or are there better ways to implement IoT?

Well, there is a couple of thing we were able to observe.

One is what we call the ‘Ruins of a smart city’. With this we imply designs, scenarios and technology that is hyped when a smart city is planned, yet already obsolete or even dysfunctional in the process of building the city. For example in Songdo City there is a central pneumatic waste disposal system. Citizens can activate a smart trash bin with their ID cards and are then able to deposit their garbage in the bins. The trash gets transported at high speed through underground pneumatic tubes to a collection station where it is separated and recycled. The city wants to eliminate the need for garbage pick-up. During a field research together with activists from Seoul-based Unmakelab, we were able to observe that the trash system is not working and piles of trash become part of the urban landscape. On the other hand, residents living in the buildings, that have invested in this infrastructure, now pay for a dysfunctional system.

Due to examples like this, Songdo has been criticized to be a prototype city or a test bed of technologies. For us, this shows that from a citizen perspective important questions to ask are actually maintenance, openness and sustainability of the technology one is intended to live with. The technological development progresses so rapidly and specially from a city planning perspective where 5-10 years later, many ideas they had envisioned for Songdo are unpractical or not used by the citizens.

A system that is praised in the advertisement material of Songdo is that each home is equipped with multiple screens that allows telepresence with other homes or institutions such as hospitals or schools. This is an idea developed before the times of mobile internet usage, which city really needs a stationary video telepresence infrastructure now? Other observations were non-functioning sensors paved into the streets and lamp posts. We documented this failed implementations also to point out the materiality of the “smart technologies” in a city.

Another thing we have became aware of is that through these massive smart city projects the city is increasingly being corporatized. Songdo is owned by three companies Gale International, Posco and Morgan Stanley. Further on cities naturally make contracts with technology companies who also end up owning wast amounts of citizen data.

We want to understand what kind challenges emerges when technotopian cities are not populated with their imagined tech-savvy international citizens. Who is included, who is excluded when we talk about smart cities? On the other hand, how do actual residents reshape, redesign, misuse or opt out from technological lock-ins?

Until now we have been mostly concentrating on Songdo which is categorized as a first generation smart city, followed by several generations that gradually starts to consider the citizen also in planning. Also the term ‘smart city’ has been widely contested while it represents diverse values, solutions and implementations depending on context.

Further on when we investigate ‘smart cities’ we are looking at those current and future scenarios in which our things are wirelessly connected, so Internet of Things. We do not think that IoT is doomed, but we see that designs are far from being sustainable, privacy respecting and somewhat secure. We are not against the development of IoT per se, though we are also not convinced that the proposed technologies that are branded ‘smart’ are best practices of solving the problems they intend to tackle.

Panopticity: ‘Seoul’ video screenshot. Photo:

How an attacker runs DDoS attacks on a victim’s IP camera

Could you explain the first work you did in that research, the city portrait of Seoul through insecure public CCTV and private IP cameras?

Cities, companies and private persons use networked security cameras often including tracking software for their surveillance. Various brands offer products with integrated web-server allowing remote processing and streaming of the video footage, adding these devises to the growing amount of connected devices. These web-servers are often ‘insecure by design’, meaning they are not protected by a password or have hard-coded login credentials saved as plain text. By default, the servers stream unencrypted and on publicly-accessible network ports, providing potential risks of being intercepted and allowing unknown third parties unintended access to the set up function of the cameras. Some manufacturers use the same vulnerable settings across their entire camera lineup.

“By default, the Network Camera is not password-protected”, or “the default user name is admin” and “the password is 12345” can be read in the camera manuals. We recorded video footage from these web streams and assembled it into a city portrait through the lenses of unsecured video cameras. The experimental video is currently touring film festivals and we are finishing a video installation that portrays mega-cities around the world through their unsecured video cameras. Paradoxically the security camera becomes a security risk. We are also fascinated to see what is surveilled around the world in the name of security.

KairUs, Forensic Fantasies. Artists talk at Aksioma – Institute for Contemporary Art, Ljubljana, 2018. Photo: Jure Goršič / Aksioma

This is probably a stupid question but i have to ask it: why are you called KairUs?

Back in 2010 when we started our artistic collaboration we were clear that we want to work with time-based interactive installation art. We adapted the ancient greek word ‘Kairos’ (καιρός) meaning the right, critical, or opportune moment. Whereas the western definition of time ‘chronos’ is purely quantitative, kairos has a qualitative, permanent nature. As artists we look for these opportune moments for our artistic expression, it encourages creativity, to adapt to unforeseen obstacles and opinions that can alter opportune or appropriate moments to produce art.

Thanks Linda and Andreas!

KairUs (Linda Kronman and Andreas Zingerle)’s solo exhibition Forensic Fantasies is at Aksioma | Project Space in Ljubljana until 16 March 2018.

And should you be a researcher, artist, hacker, maker, activist, developers or designer whose work and/or writing explores the vulnerabilities in IoT devices and other embedded systems, then have a look at this open call for submissions (deadline is 30 April 2018.)

Related stories: Permanent Error, e-waste, porn, ecology & warfare. An interview with Dani Ploeger, When erased data come back to haunt you and Harvesting the Rare Earth.

When erased data come back to haunt you

Peters Riekstins, Back to the Light, 2016. Exhibition opening at RIXC Gallery in Riga. Photo: Kristine Madjare for RIXC

Everyone knows about cybercrime and how owning networked computers and mobile devices makes you a potential victim of bank fraud, identity theft, extortion, theft of confidential information, etc. Data stored on your computer is never safe and its ghosts can come back and haunt you long after you’ve discarded your electronic device, long after even you’ve erased the data it contained.

Unless you take every possible step to make sure that your device is being recycled responsibly and data is erased thoroughly from the hard-drive, your credit card numbers, the classified information of the company you worked for or the records of online transactions you had forgotten about can end up being sold on black markets or used for identity theft, blackmail and credit card fraud.

Artist Peters Riekstins has been investigating data security over the past few years. From the way people trade privacy for convenience, sharing their private data on various platforms, to the way they neglect to properly wipe out the sensitive data they release in the wild when they discard their computers.

To illustrate this never-ending life of data after computer death, Riekstins first looked for ways to obtain and use private data legally. He found it in pawnshops where he bought discarded hard drives for 20 to 40 euros. “The content on most of the hard-drives have been deleted by the original owner,” he said. “Unfortunately, not everyone is aware that it’s pretty difficult to delete data permanently. When you simply delete a file on your computer, it only records this space as empty and available. Physical data are still on the hard drive until the computer itself transcribes new information over the free space.”


Peters Riekstins, Porn Roullete (screenshot from video documentation)

“It’s actually not hard at all to get data from hard drives,” the artist continued. “Unless you want to get something specific, as you would do if you lost something. There are ways to get everything that is stored in magnetic disks, it takes skills, but for now i have plenty information to work with.”

Influenced by the content he found on external hard-drives (mostly pirated movies, TV series, private images and pornography), he made Porn Roullete, an installation inviting visitors to spin the hard drive. When it stops rotating, images from the hard drive are shown on a small display. There is one in 6 chances (as in the Russian roulette) that the image will be a pornographic picture.

Ghost Call [expired]

Another work using found material was Ghost Call, an 8-hour video performance on YouTube. People could call in and summon an image from a hard drive. Just like you would summon a ghost. The images floated on the screen for a few moments and then they disintegrated back to the mysterious place they came from. The soundtrack of the work used music retrieved from hard drives but modified with granular synthesis.

Peters Riekstins, Back to the Light, 2016. Exhibition opening at RIXC Gallery in Riga. Photo: Kristine Madjare for RIXC

The latest series Riekstņš worked on is called “Back to the Light.” The project consists in ‘reawakening’ pixels that have been quietly sleeping on hard drives, forgotten by all including their original owners. The artist brought them back to light not exactly as they had been saved (which would be ethically questionable) but artistically modified. The images, videos and sound material has been processed by programs developed by the artist in order to create a certain artistic esthetics. The work also aims to convey the message that the data could have been used in a very different way had it ended in evil hands.

All the artwork were made using the images that the artist has found in just one disk. It contained many many things. Such as hundreds of copies of passports. Riekstins remixed them so that visually they look like one passport. Video of the work by Raitis Šmits.

Peters Riekstins, Back to the Light, 2016. Exhibition opening at RIXC Gallery in Riga. Photo: Kristine Madjare for RIXC

In a second artwork he mixed together the faces of 1059 people who’ve never met in real life, but who get the opportunity of a kind of post-mortem encounter through Riekstņš’ work. All of the pictures are shown simultaneously so that it results in a forever changing face, one that looks both familiar and strangely alien. Video of the work by Raitis Šmits.

By restoring deleted files and using them in art practice, Riekstiņš hopes to stimulate people to feel responsible for their digital property. Now and after they’ve discarded it. “I want people to understand that it is important to take care of their data security,” he concludes. “If you really want to delete data from your hard drive, the hardware has to be physically destroyed (destroying only the monitor is not enough, unlike what Hollywood would like you to believe.)”

Back to the Light was recently part of the RAM (Random Access Memories) exhibition at the RIXC Gallery in Riga. RAM showcased the work of Trihars (aka Rihards Vitols, Peters Riekstins and Kristaps Biters), an artist collective interested in the interconnections between computer and environment. The show closed on 4 September 2016.
Also part of the same show: The Woodpecker: Could fake birds save our forests?

Politics and Practices of Secrecy (part 2)

Liberty Crossing is a complex for 1,700 federal workers and 1,200 contractors. Photo by Michael S. Williamson / The Washington Post

Previously: Politics and Practices of Secrecy (part 1).

And this is part 2 of the notes i took during the Politics and Practices of Secrecy symposium which took place at King's College in London last month. My reports do not follow the schedule of the panels, nor do they cover all the talks. I'm just cherry picking the more interesting moments of the day. Part 1 focused on the art projects. This post is less uniform in its theme. Two of the presentations i enjoyed covered the representation of intelligence agencies in films and tv fiction. Another was about the influence that new forms of surveillance are having on the rise of home-grown ('home' being the U.S.A., the symposium was organised by the Institute of North American Studies) white extremist groups. And a fourth talk wondered if transparency could fix our democracy.

The Top Secret Network of Government and its Contractors

Let's start with Timothy Melley, Professor Affiliate of American Studies at Miami University and author of The Covert Sphere. Secrecy, Fiction, and the National Security State and of Empire of Conspiracy. The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America.

In his talk, 'The Democratic Security State: Operating Between Secrecy and Publicity', Melley listed up a few numbers:

This secret world costs 8 billion dollars per year.

According to 2010 Washington Post analysis:

50,000 intelligence reports are written each year. Their volume is so large that most are never read.

The intelligence hides out in the open:
In Washington D.C., 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work have been built (or are being built) since September 2001. Their total surface is equal to 22 U.S. Capitols.
Similar buildings can be found in 10,000 other locations across the U.S.A.

The complexity of this system defies description Lt Gen. (Ret.) John R. Vines

The U.S. covert state is a growing industry. It handles a huge number of secrets all over the country. It relies on democratic structures but acts like a shadow state that has its own territory and laws. It also support some film makers by lending helicopters needed for films that publicize the covert world. The reason for that is that the secret programme needs public approval.

What we know about the CIA comes from leaks but also from fiction. Our screens are awash with what Melley calls 'terror melodrama." One of his presentations slides even listed those films. Covert CIA operations are celebrated in books, films, games, tv series, etc. Earlier this year, the CIA, pleased with the way it is portrayed in "Homeland", invited the show's cast and producers to visit its headquarters in Virginia and have a discussion. Another example is when Michelle Obama presented the 2013 Best Picture award to Ben Affleck's Argo, a film adapted from CIA operative Tony Mendez's book The Master of Disguise and the 2007 Wired article The Great Escape: How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran.

An exit marker points to the National Security Agency. Photo by Michael S. Williamson / The Washington Post

The N.S.A. properties in Maryland total 8.6 million square feet of office space, 1.3 times as big as the Pentagon. Photo by Sandra McConnell, N.S.A.

Keeping with the spy in entertainment theme, Matt Potolsky, Professor of English at University of Utah, looked at the representation of the NSA on tv and in cinema.

Fiction and films are often the only way the public can picture and judge for themselves the activities of intelligence agencies. FBI, KGB, CIA have often been presented in films. How about the NSA? According to Potolsky, the NSA never turned into real fictional tropes.

The 2009 movie Echelon Conspiracy features NSA agents and the signals intelligence collection system Echelon.

There have been more recent attempts to depict the activity of the massive NSA:
- Citizenfour by Laura Poitras, of course.
- but also "Let Go, Let Gov" a South Park episode that satirizes the 2013 mass surveillance revelations, and casts Eric Cartman in the role of a whistleblower, in which he infiltrates the NSA in protest of the agency's surveillance of American citizens. In the episode, NSA agents appear as little more than anonymous cogs working behind desks. This obviously is very different from the 'Men in Black' style description of CIA agents. The NSA agents look like they are working for a multinational corporation rather than for a spy agency.

South Park, Let Go Let Gov

Mark Fenster, Professor at the Levin College of Law (University of Florida) and author of the book Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture. His talk was titled 'Secrecy and the Hypothetical State Archive.'

Fenster started by reminding us of a whistleblower of the early 1970s. Daniel Ellsberg was employed by the RAND Corporation when he not only read classified documents he wasn't supposed to open but also photocopied and released them to The New York Times and other newspapers. The Pentagon Papers, officially titled United States - Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense, were top-secret documents that charted the US' political-military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967.

0NYT Pentagon Papers.jpg
In June 1971 the New York Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers (image)

There is now a trust in 'transparency' but, Fenster asks, Can transparency fix our democracy? Obama was elected to end Bush's secrecy. But the secrecy is now as deep as ever. If not deeper.

But Fenster says, information leaks. Sometimes from the top, sometimes from the bottom. Sometimes drop by drop, sometimes it flows.

It is particularly tricky to control State information. If you think about the model of communication Sender-Message-Receiver, the Sender would be the State, the Message is state information and the Receiver is the public.

The state is organizationally complex, it is spatially deployed, it is enclosed in buildings, offices. In truth, it is a mess that is difficult to keep shut.

State information is difficult to perceive clearly, it is a vast amount of information, it is hard to archive and to control its release. Sometimes state information can leak by mistake.

The public is made of individuals and they will have their own interpretation of any information released.

In brief, information cannot be controlled, on any level.

According to Fenster, the revelation of a secret often offers marginal gains. It certainly doesn't lead necessarily to a reformed democracy.

Another talk i found very informative was the one by Hugh Urban, professor of religious studies at Ohio State University and author of The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion

His talk, 'The Silent Brotherhood: Secrecy, Violence, and Surveillance from the Brüder Schweigen to the War on Terror' looked at the white males' belief that they are the victims of racial oppression. In their view, white males are persecuted by women, Black people, Muslims, Jews, etc. That's what Urban calls the "white man falling" syndrome.

0abrotherhbslarge.jpgBrüder Schweigen or Silent Brotherhood, was a white nationalist revolutionary organization active in the United States between September 1983 and December 1984. Its founder Robert Jay Mathews wanted to create an elite vanguard of Aryan warriors to save the white race. The Silent Brotherhood group was responsible for a number of violent crimes: robberies, bombings, murders, counterfeiting operations, etc.

Nowadays, much of the anti-terrorist attention focuses on radical Islam, neglecting home-grown white extremist groups. Figures show that the number of patriot groups in the U.S. is growing very rapidly. The reasons for that are many: bad economic conditions, black president but also the rise of surveillance which augments these people's distrust of the FBI, NSA and other governmental agents.

Urban's conclusions were that:

1. Secrecy is both the explanation and the radical solution for the 'white man falling' syndrome.

2. New forms of surveillance play into, feed and reinforce the narratives of such radical groups.

Politics and Practices of Secrecy was organized by the Institute of North American Studies at King's College London, on 14-15 May, 2015.