Last week I got a chance to talk to Hasan Elahi, an interdisciplinary media artist known for his 7-year-long self-tracking project that helped him escape from the terrorist watch list of U.S government. The conversation with Hasan Elahi is a fruitful one, as it deepened my understanding towards identity and data sharing, and opened up new directions for my thesis investigation.
Me: I really admire and appreciate the rule you have set up for yourself, and it is a very powerful statement you have made. But for me, I can’t stop thinking if there is any push-n-pull between the fact and information shared about you. How high would be the stake if you were to lie one thing about yourself with the data? And what might be the safest way to do so?
Hasan: My motivation behind the project is to create an alibi and to protect my own safety. In my case, the stake of lying can be really high. Because the data is not just my geographic location and the photos of the places I have been to, but also the account statement of every transactions I make, the ATM machine activities, the flight ticket I booked… it’s easy for someone to verify and supervise the data at any point. What I am doing, I think, should not be described as “deception”, but “hiding”.
Me: So How did you hide?
Hasan: It is about how the data is presented. You know, I could have made a stream line of the data, but instead of doing that, I made them in points and segments. The photos are displayed in a non lineage way and gathered according to the type of the activity. This makes it difficult to dig out any data in the past and piece together the actual story, because there are gaps everywhere, between each frames and that’s why the time has become extremely important for someone to study the data.
Me: How often is the tracking data updated?
Hasan:The updates happen automatically everytime it detects a change in the location, But moving around my own apartment will not result in the change of location. But if leave my place and go to the grocery store, it will interpret it as a change and logs it.
Hasan: If you think about it, you’ll find my data is exactly what trial lawyers have to deal with for years. There are, say, 1,500 pages of evidences but only 2 paragraphs of the text is valuable to the case. Most people don’t have the patience to go through all of the data, or they can’t tell the valuable data from the useless one. The sheer amount of info is valuable on one hand, but on the other hand if one does not know how to approach and use this value, much is of little for them.
Me: Is it also a statement about how little we know how to use the data being collected?
Hasan: Absolutely. When we don’t have the proper strategy of analyze the data, and we don’t understand what is meaningful and what comes out of that data, the access to the information becomes something useless. We are now in a culture of information gathering where we don’t equally understand information analysis. The more you look at the data on my tracking site, the more anonymous you’ll find I am. I have created so much noise about me that you couldn’t really tell which data points are most closely linked to me and my activities.
Me: Do you think tracking one’s own life can also be viewed as an act for privacy defense?
Hasan: In my case, it is not exactly a privacy defense, as basically, I have no privacy. But what I did is something you can call self-identification. It usually comes out of something bad said about you in the past, and you have to reconstruct your image. For example, when you Google your name and found the first result being listed is something shady. Google will not help you filter the search result and you have to do it yourself. What you can do is you create a whole bunch of new information about yourself and make that the top results of Google search. It is a process of generating information you want others to perceive who you are.
Me: I found a new application on iPhone called Path, which, actually allows people to exactly what you have been doing for 7 years. You can tag things in a picture and share them, while the software will also keep a path of the places you have been.
Hasan: That is very interesting. It reminds me of the very first day when I started the project. When I told people that I wanted to track myself, they thought I was a psycho. (One personal called me creep.) Years later, one may find that I was actually doing a pre-twitter and pre-facebook project and now there are 500,000 people who are doing the same thing.