Behind the Smart World ArtLab -- artistic strategies for dealing with resurfacing data

by KairUs - Linda Kronman and Andreas Zingerle

Breaches of Western information security thanks to a rise in electronic waste circulation have been particularly pronounced in Ghana, where a certain cadre of citizens has taken to searching out information on Westerners’ old hard drives for extortive purposes.1

Since 2010 we as KairUs artist duo have focused on researching topics such as spam, scam and Internet fraud. In August 2014 our research had evolved to the stage that we needed to take a field trip to West Africa, where a considerable number of so called advance fee fraud originates. Rather than hunting down scammers in Internet cafés, we were interested to see which technological affordances or limitations the scammers were faced with in this part of the world. In our initial research we came across reports about an electronic waste dump called Agbogbloshie. In the middle of Ghana’s capital Accra, in this toxic wasteland by a lagoon, is where our electronics from developed countries are illegally dumped. Jennifer Garbys examines in her book Digital Rubbish2 in detail how electronic waste ends up at e-waste dumps such as Agbogbloshie; first they linger in storage, from there high-grade machines might be resold, the dysfunctional machines are then shipped in containers to harbors in developing countries such as the one in Tema, where most of the e-waste enters Ghana. In Tema the containers are sold and transported to Agbogbloshie. The next step is the salvaging of components, copper, gold, iron, plastic, and anything else of value.

Electronics are made of minerals and chemicals, natural resources that are gleaned by organic laboring bodies, no matter whether this takes place at an e-waste dump or in a mine. One of the most memorable sounds from Agbogbloshie was the clacking sound of metal scrap hitting the aluminum structures of a computer, when the workers were disassembling the computers into mother boards, processors and hard drives and further for extraction of valuable metals and raw earth minerals. Components and materials salvaged at Agbogbloshie enter new cycles of production, reentering the consumption cycle, whereas the residues remain. Moore’s Law, a near golden law within the world of computing, predicted the computer revolution in which the rate of innovation within electronics has decreased to as little as 18 months.3 Creating something new will thus be followed by an another gadget turning old. These old electronics, dead media, or zombie media, as Jussi Parikka, names them leave fossilized traces of designed obsolescence and gadget-culture.4 At Agbogbloshie these materials are difficult to recycle; the toxic, unstable materials mix with the black ashes of burned cables and pieces of electronic fossils. They pile in indefinitely growing layers of obsolete technologies, if not directly washed through the lagoon into the sea, as we witnessed during a day of heavy rain. This is how: “dead media creeps back as dangerous toxins into the soil or then as zombie media recycled into new assemblies”5. Agbogbloshie, our electronic dystopia earned its nickname - Sodom and Gomorrah.

Among other components, “zombie” hard drives also enter a new chain of value available at Agbogbloshie in stock for a negotiated price. Likewise the data saved on these storage media resurface, even if they were dumped in the trash, both physically and metaphorically, in the bin on our computer desktop with an expectation of permanent deletion. What took us to Agbogbloshie in the first place were reports we read on how journalism students had discovered data breaches of companies and governments when recovering data from hard drives bought at the e-waste dump.6 Additionally we found articles describing how scammers abused data originating from hard drives collected at e-waste dumps in West Africa.7 Therefore, when visiting Agbogbloshie we decided to buy twenty-two hard drives, curious to see whether dumped data would persist, and could it easily be recovered and would it be of potential value? Could the data be artistically reused and/or rather easily abused?

When we returned to Linz our plan was to follow media theorist Jussi Parikka's suggestion:

In the age of consumer electronics, the artist can also be thought of as an archaeological circuit bender and hacker, which links media archeology with the political agenda of contemporary media production.8

Our plan was therefore to recover the data from the hard drives and offer the data and the hard drives as source material for artistic production. During two DIY-data recovery sessions we accessed data from three hard drives, just by plugging them in to a computer. This means that the data on the hard drives was not even deleted. Two hard drives were recovered by trying out open source tools such as PhotoRec, TestDisc and Partition Magic. In these cases the data was deleted by the owner, by trashing it into the “bin” or using the delete command. We learned that deleting data is a rather symbolic gesture, whereas the data is not actually deleted until it is overwritten. According to data specialists, even overwritten data can be recovered with special tools9 and the only hundred percent secure way to delete data is to physically destroy the plate where the data is stored. This was demonstrated in one of the “stranger episodes in the history of digital-age journalism”, when the Guardian had to destroy all their hard drive copies of NSA files leaked by Edward Snowden.10 What made the episode strange was that British authorities supervising the erasure of the data as well as the journalist were all aware of existing copies in America and Brazil, proving that the strength of digital data to persist is in the easiness of duplicating it.

Of our twenty-two hard drives, seventeen were physically damaged. In this case such parts as the internal read write heads or the spindle motor can be changed and the data can still be recovered. The complicated part is to get the spare parts, as each brand and model use customized parts, which can still vary depending on the manufacturing country. Therefore we asked for help from the company ECS-solutions that recovers lost data as a business model. Even with their help only one additional hard drive was recovered. This was mainly because the hard drives where relatively old, with production dates ranging from 1997-2008, and spare parts were not easily available.

With 85 GB (229.446 items) of recovered data from six hard drives we approached nine European artists with various artistic practices, inviting them to use the data and the hard drives as a source for creating artworks. In May 2015 we met for an extended weekend to discuss ideas and our approaches to the recovered data during the “Behind the Smart World” ArtLab. Considerations raised during the ArtLab led to discussions about ownership of data, how to deal with abstraction of data, how to avoid exposing private individuals without their consent, and the labor of structuring data that mostly consisted of “junk” such as porn, system files, and images downloaded while shopping online. Browsing through the recovered hard drives, it became rather obvious that as a consequence of seemingly unlimited data storage, we hoard rather than collect data. Rather fast it became a laborious task to get an overview of what just a couple of hard drives contain, specially when recovered data lack both filenames and structure.

During the weekend we also invited experts in data recovery, data forensics, and data policies to support us in developing strategies to deal with the data. Additionally, a visit to a recycling center gave us to better understanding of the material aspects of electronic waste.

As an outcome of the ArtLab we developed strategies for dealing with the data, which developed into concepts and further to artworks for an exhibition. There were two main approaches that emerged from the ArtLab, one of them focusing on the recovered data and the other exploring the material aspects of the physical hard drives. We became aware early on that using data from a hard drive as found footage needed a different approach than photographs, film or video cassettes found in a box at a flea-market. Our data forensics expert Dr. Michael Sonntag suggested that we should mix data to avoid accidentally exposing a person’s identity. Another approach was to transform the data, mapping it to another format, which is the case with Joakim Blattmann’s artwork, in which metadata and folder structures from the hard drives are mapped to a musical score for a classical piano. Metadata can expose surprisingly private information and folder structures are like personal memory paths. As a soundscape certain patterns can still be revealed, while by abstracting the source we avoid exposing any private data.

Fabian Kühfuss’s work Shopimation examines how rather impersonal images downloaded in our browser cache during online shopping can bring us closer to an unknown individual and his or her “aesthetic dreams”. Shopimation uses thumbnails to build up a subjective code of an aesthetic, thereby translating the very private dream of who the owner of the hard drive would like to be. This work echoes the economic ecologies of our commodified Internet experiences, in which our profiles, interests and desires are continuously tracked and used to accelerate our consumption.

Emöke Bada's Virus Chart, on the other hand, looks at the trackers, the malware and viruses – the unwanted intruders on our hard drives. As the artist explains in an e-mail:

Before even starting to look at any of the files, I followed the standard procedure of running a virus scan. Which was interesting because at the end of the day, on the harddrives that have been recovered so far, there were 881 viruses all in all.**11

Earlier viruses and malware were often destructive, even causing physical damage to the host, while today’s digital parasites hoard data and are most successful as long as they are not recognized. The Virus Chart takes a close look on the “health” of these hard drives using medical charts as a metaphor to describe their maleficent content. Could it also be that the “poor health” of the hard drives was the reason why they ended up at Agbogbloshie in the first place?

In a trilogy of installations, we as the artist duo KairUs returned to our initial research questions of what is the value of the data on a hard drive and how could it potentially be (ab)used? We know that dealing with data is a rather lucrative business today, yet as we learned from our data policies expert Fieke Jansen, the data of one person is worth only 0.7-0.01USD (a speculative estimate made by dividing Google’s value by its users). In these terms data points are only valuable when connected to others, revealing patterns and desires. Selling the content of a hard drive to data brokers is worth less than selling its spare parts to a company in the data recovery business. What can make a hard drive valuable, on the other hand, is sensitive personal data that can be abused, including access to banking or shopping accounts, private images for blackmailing and harassment, or identity theft. This was the case with U.S. Congressman Robert Wexler. He was contacted and blackmailed with information from one of his discarded hard drives that was found in a second-hand computer market in Ghana.12 By using DIY-data forensic methods combined with open source intelligent strategies and tools, it was also possible for us to confirm one of the owners of a hard drive with sensitive images. And another hard drive shows evidence of being used for romance scams. The potential abusing of data is therefore the focal point of these works, illustrating a number of “worst case scenarios” based on the recovered data. Even if there is nothing to hide, your deleted data might still return to haunt you.

Shifting to the works that deal with the material aspects of the hard drives, Michael Wirthig’s Inside Data (The Forgotten) focuses on the drive platter as the actual physical container of our data on a hard drive. This experimental film travels through the inner parts of a hard drive in extreme close-ups, using light field microscope images to give the viewer an intimate perspective of the rather impersonal metal plate. Scratches and dust are made visible, the most common physical damage to our hard drives and most often the reason for these devices to fail. As it was impossible to recover the data from the majority of the hard drives brought back from Ghana, this work investigates the most fragile parts of digital data storage.

From a forensic perspective, which rests on individualization, each hard drive is unique. When zooming in enough with a magnetic force microscope, even “individual bit representations deposit discreet legible trails”13, forcing us to review our perspective on the illusion of an immaterial bit just as a symbol either as a 1 or a 0. Also Simon Krenn’s and Mathias Urban’s work Transposon deals with the material aspects of data and storage media. During the ArtLab the artists collected magnetic field recordings from the hard drives, and when the sounds were amplified the experiment revealed that each hard drive has a unique sound. In the Transposon sound installation, the sounds are further recorded to wax cylinders via a modified Edison GEM phonograph, the earliest commercial medium to record and reproduce sound. The recordings are in this way reversely migrated from one “zombie medium” to another and further back to be mixed and listened to again in a digital format. Each migration brings further qualities to the sound, which is transformed along with the migration processes. Likewise, when any data is migrated, even in the case of digital files loss, corruption and glitches appear. These obsolete media with about a decade of age difference are the black boxes we as artists are called on to hack, bend and re-purpose, in order to critically reflect on our current relationship to electronics, their life cycles and residues. The twenty-two hard drives brought back from Agbogbloshie functioned as vehicle to discuss data privacy, data collection, data forensics, e-waste, erasure of data, and dead media. Behind the shiny smart world of advertisers, another reality is revealed, unfolding the consequences of our datafied consumer culture, which is far from being sustainable or fair.

KairUs is a collective of two artists Linda Kronman (FI) and Andreas Zingerle (AT). Our work focuses on human computer and computer mediated human-human interaction with a special interest in transmedia and interactive storytelling. Since 2010 we have worked with the theme of Internet fraud and online scams, constantly shifting our focus and therefore approaching the theme from a number of perspectives, such as data security, data privacy, ethics of vigilante communities, narratives of scam e-mails, and technologies in relation to fraud.

Interview with Michaela Lakova: _Deleted file information is like a fossil..._
  1. Jason Warner, Understanding Cyber-Crime in Ghana: A View from Below, 2011 International Journal of Cyber Criminology (IJCC) ISSN:0974 – 2891 Jan – July 2011, Vol 5 (1): p. 736–749.
  2. Garbys, Jennifer: Digital Rubbish: a natural history of electronics, University of Michigan Press, USA, 2011.
  3. ibid. p.30
  4. Parikka, Jussi: A Geology of Media, University of Minnesota Press, 2015. p.60
  5. ibid. p.60
  6. Emily Chung, B.C. students buy sensitive U.S. defence data for $40 in Africa, CBC News Posted: Jun 23, 2009, available at:
  7. Warner, Jason: Understanding Cyber-Crime in Ghana: A View from Below, 2011.
  8. Parikka, Jussi: A Geology of Media, University of Minnesota Press, 2015. p.150
  10. Julian Borger, NSA files: why the Guardian in London destroyed hard drives of leaked files, the Aug 20, 2013, available at:
  11. Emöke Bada, personal e-mail communication Jun 4, 2015
  12. Warner, Jason: Understanding Cyber-Crime in Ghana: A View from Below, 2011.
  13. Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA: The MIT Press, 2012, paperback edition), p. 10.