'Behind the Smart World' – Introduction

The smart world. Created by policymakers, the advertising world, creative industries, and persuasive UX-designers that portray to us a world of shiny brand new technologies, apps that solve all our daily problems and smart cities collecting big data that will eventually solve all the problems of human kind. If we take a slightly more critical look at our smart world, though, our shiny gadgets become obsolete faster than ever, turning into toxic e-waste; our apps and smart cities have turned into an effective all-encompassing surveillance apparatus, and we have no idea who is collecting our data, who accesses it, and where it is stored. There may be issues that the smart world can solve, but at the same time, it raises new problems concerning data breaches, data privacy, data ownership and electronic waste. In this publication researchers and artists unfold some of these issues in three parts: Saving Data, Deleting Data and Resurfacing Data. Each part begins with theoretical texts that address some of the concerns, followed by strategies of artists and activists that expose problematic power structures, creatively reveal how we lost control of our data and offer strategies to deal with our data in this smart world.

Part 1: Saving Data

Ctrl-S / Cmd-S, saving our data used to be a conscious act, and we still use this key combination relatively often. When we use our smart phones, computers, tablets or other devices connected to the Internet, our data is increasingly saved without us realizing it. Programs have auto save functions, apps are so user friendly that they spread our data into the celestial clouds, and increasingly our behavior is tracked and saved by unknown third parties. In which ways is our data collected and saved? Is there any way we can know who is collecting our data, where it is saved and what it is used for? Fieke Jansen, researcher at the 'Politics of Data' program at 'Tactical Tech' writes about the blooming industry of data brokers who track us, collecting our data to create profiles of us that can be sold to those who persuasively lure us to become better consumers. She also offers some practical tips on how to avoid being tracked. Artist Ivar Veermäe continues to elaborate the topic of commercial cloud computing by questioning the rhetorics of IT companies who intentionally ignore the gap between immaterial information and the material architecture supporting it. Data-centers and their supporting formations are the focus of his long-term artistic research project Center of Doubt. Emilio Vavarella suggests metamorphosis as the 'essential goal of survival achieved through countless creative endeavors' as a strategy to resist technological powers. He illustrates how he plays with the errors of Google Street View in a series of artworks assembled as THE GOOGLE TRILOGY. Obfuscation as a strategy to resist the apparatus that is constantly tracking us is offered by artist Leo Selvaggio, who reflects on the problematic issue of facial recognition in surveillance. Leo's URME Surveillance project gives the public a chance to hide behind a 3D prosthetic of his face. When Leo's faces appear in several locations at the same time, the ability to identify people through facial recognition systems is questioned. Even if this strategy might be rather problematic in the long run, it reveals yet another way in which our data is continuously saved by others, in this case as images, locations and times, waiting to be connected to the rest of our profile.

Part 2: Deleting Data

The second part of this publication still continues to reflect on 'the way we save ourselves'. Writer and artist Marloes de Valk asks: What will remain of our compulsive fetish of saving everything? In her article the consequences of saving data without the ability to delete it start to unfold. She describes some effects of our 'information-hungry lifestyles', such as the toxic lakes in China and e-waste dumped in developing countries. The article from the research team "Times of Waste" continues on the topic of e-waste, focusing especially on recycle and reuse paths of smart-phones. What happens to our old phones, when upgrade to yet another model? When our electronics start their journey as waste for us, they might still be of use for others. Before we drop our smart-phone in the recycle bin or sell our computer parts online, we might want to delete the data on them. In Audrey Samson's interview we learn that deleting data is far more complicated than emptying the trash bin or resetting our phones to factory presets. In her works data is deleted by physically destroying the storage medium or concealing it, making it impossible to access. Destruction is the only 100% effective way of data erasure. Data recovery takes time, requires expertise and spare parts, but it has been proven possible in many cases. Though Audrey's artworks are symbolic 'data funerals', she also brings forth the problem of deleting data online. She explains some of the current policies for how online profiles are managed in case of a person's death. Once our data is uploaded to a server in the cloud, we loose ownership of it; while we are not able to access it, we are also not able to delete or destroy it. Stefan Tiefengraber's artworks also deal with the materiality of servers in data centers using destruction, while emphasizing how limited our access to them is at the same time. In his artwork User Generated Server Destruction visitors to a website have the rare opportunity to physically damage the server on which the website is hosted. The website goes off-line when the hammers installed on the server take their toll on it. The works by Audrey and Stefan reveal that the 'death of data' leaves a material corpse behind. A rather toxic corpse, in fact, that does not decay easily, containing rare minerals and chemicals, some even valuable to mine. This 'urban mining' can be an effective way of reusing materials, but it can also be a health hazard and an ecological disaster when not done properly. The essays in this chapter connect the seemingly immaterial information, the ones and zeros of our data, to their material containers. Whereas the cloud suggests an unlimited capacity of storage space, one wonders where do the data centers go to die?

Part 3: Resurfacing Data

As the prior parts of the publication show, we live in a time when everything is saved, and this data is very hard to delete. When we share our data online, it often ends up being backed-up, duplicated, shared further and sold for profit. Traces of our data can therefore resurface in a number of places, as is made clear in the article by computer forensic expert Dr. Michael Sonntag, who writes about third person data, data that is collected and stored with our unwitting consent. He also outlines what personal data of ours exists and in which context it can resurface. We also carry an increasing number of items on us that store personal data. Do we make efforts to delete the data on an old mobile phone before we hand it in for recycling, what about an old computer hard-drive, one that we might not be able to boot any more? What if we delete the data on the hard-drive, but it is not actually deleted? As discussed in the previous chapter, data is only effectively deleted if it is physically destroyed. But there are a lot of 'zombie hard-drives' resurfacing at flea markets, in containers shipped as donations to developing countries or at e-waste dumps. Which data resurfaces? Can it be re-used or abused? These were some of the initial questions we had when we bought 22 hard drives in Ghana at one of the biggest e-waste dumps in the world. The essay Behind the Smart World ArtLab – artistic strategies to deal with resurfacing data recounts the journey of these hard drives and how artists in an ArtLab dealt creatively with the data on them. Most of the data on such hard drives is information junk, waste of its own kind, yet personal data on these hard-drives raise a lot of ethical questions: Who owns the data? Can the data be (ab)used? Are we invading people's privacy just by looking at the data? Artist Michaela Lakova invites the audience to deal with these ethical questions in her installation DEL?No,wait!REW. In this installation data is recovered from hard drives bought from flea markets, and the visitor is confronted with the dilemma of either deleting the file forever or posting it on the Internet. In addition to this, Michaela explains about her other projects concerning the recovery of data and storage mediums. Data is saved, duplicated, cloned, shared and published for different motives. Most of us would agree that spam mails and fake websites used for fraud should be categorized as the junk of Internet traffic. It is estimated that fake websites make up around 20% of the entire World Wide Web, and they are often clones and copies of sites published elsewhere. This type of resurfacing data is the focus of the last article Strategies of Net-activists Against Phishing and Fake Business Websites, in which we illustrate how open source intelligence tools can be used to report websites suspected for fraud and eventually have them blocked by their hosting providers. Nevertheless, when one domain is blocked, the same website often resurfaces under yet another slightly different domain name. This phenomena is also clearly visible in the artwork Megacorp. that visualizes a collection of 1000 fake companies.

KairUs - Linda Kronman and Andreas Zingerle

Fieke Jansen: If not us, who stores and owns our data?