Hasan Elahi: "Giving the F.B.I. What It Wants"

We've blogged before about artist Hasan Elahi, who learned in 2008 that he was being tracked as a terror suspect by the U.S. for undisclosed reasons. He has never been charged with a crime, but that's hardly needed these days, thanks to the Patriot Act (which recently turned 10). The New York Times this weekend ran a sort of manifesto from Elahi, in which he describes how he transformed this extraordinary act of surveillance into an extraordinary work of art.

In an era in which everything is archived and tracked, the best way to maintain privacy may be to give it up. Information agencies operate in an industry that values data. Restricted access to information is what makes it valuable. If I cut out the middleman and flood the market with my information, the intelligence the F.B.I. has on me will be of no value. Making my private information public devalues the currency of the information the intelligence gatherers have collected.

Read the whole thing: Giving the F.B.I. What It Wants (NYT, thanks Miles O'Brien).

Also: Clive Thompson wrote this feature about him in Wired back in 2008.

(IMAGE: Top, art by Elahi which incorporates surveillance data about his location and activities. Middle, one of the FBI surveillance images of his whereabouts. Bottom, Mr. Elahi, via Wikipedia.)


  1. Um, YEAAAHHHHH…….  No, doesn’t work with datamining, or a decent text search feature.  They just pull out the info they want.  You don’t think they did all the stuff to wiretap half the US, or listen in to the world’s communications with the NSA, WITHOUT the ability to find what they wanted in the haystack, right?

    The fact that Android and iPhone both have excellent speach recognition should tell you just how hard it is to hide anything anymore.  Used to be they would have to assign a person to it, not anymore.

  2. I’m glad that I’m not the only one that feels this way. Although I would only support such a change if it really did include everyone, from the upper crust of the 1% down to the homeless on the street. Everyone has skeletons, nobody is perfect, but society today (and always) encourages us to hide our blemishes, fake perfection and adhere to the norm because it’s not merely different to be different, but inherently ‘wrong’ to be different. Finding out that someone deviates from the norm damages them because we pretend that deviation ~is~ the norm. If everyone could easily see that anyone and everyone is imperfect then that perfection, or lack thereof, would no longer have power.

    To go one step further: I support the oft trivialized view that if you don’t have anything to hide then there is no need for privacy. Would I submit to random searches of my person by police officers on a daily basis? No, but not because it invades my privacy, rather, because it’s a severe pain to deal with that would likely waste hours of time. If it could be done in such a way that I’d be none the wiser that it even occured? Then I have no problems with that.

    P.S. I consider personally private information (daily activities, private life, etc.) distinct from contractually private information (bank account numbers, passwords, trade secrets). I support disclosure of the former, nothing really needs to change about the latter.

    P.P.S. For this to work we would have to more strictly and consistently enforce existing laws protecting civil rights and the like…

    P.P.P.S. Most counterarguments to this view are about how such lack of privacy could be taken advantage of by others, but if we actually implemented universal disclosure of personally private information, then such abuses would be visible and could be dealt with directly.

    1. I support the oft trivialized view that if you don’t have anything to hide then there is no need for privacy.

      Are you LGBT?

  3. Think this has more to do with the power of a secret than foiling the FBI through information overload. If the gov’t accuses someone (as it has) of being a terrorist, because of a certain thing they did in a certain time and a certain place, but then refuses to share their evidence on grounds of ‘compromising national security,’ that is the power of secrecy, working in their favor. This gentleman, by building his own, transparent, and public record of his whereabouts, neutralizes that power.

  4. Thank you, that was an enlightening read, and I would be very surprised if my understanding of society and privacy was not shallow. However I must disagree on some points.

    “Divulging your identity will give the officer enormous power over you: He or she can search police databases using the information on your ID; he or she can create a police record attached to your name; he or she can put you on this or that secret terrorist watch list. Asking to see the officer’s ID in return gives you no comparable power over him or her.”

    This doesn’t ring true to me. If we were living in the hypothetical world where universal disclosure was implemented then anything the officer altered or added to any files concerning you could be corroborated by other evidence or proven to be unnecessary falsifications as which point action could be taken to ensure the officer does not do so again. Whether or not we could be more effective at policing the police in the long run in a universally transparent society is not something I have any idea about how to even begin determining, but that doesn’t preclude it being better than what we have now.

    Furthermore, when the essay was making its case citing a real world example it seems to have made my case.

    “Without that recording, it was the detective’s word against Crespo’s. ”

    Were universal disclosure enforced then this conversation would have been recorded by default and the potential for Crespo to be wrongly punished would have been less from the get go. 

    1. You seem to be ignoring the hard part or taking it for granted. There is no enforcing surveillance of the powerful AND the less powerful. It’s always the less powerful.

  5.  It always seems necessary to trivialize any dignitary interest that people have in their privacy, their autonomy, their ability to control, in some measure, their lives. Invasions of privacy are justified in terms that they incriminate only the guilty. Unlawful searches are justified in terms that they are not theft. An unfair trial is justified by the assertion that the defendant was guilty anyway, and fairness would have made no difference to the decision. And so we must show and tell the policeman everything, and welcome him in our houses, and allow him to detain us. Because, of course, he will never do anything to hurt the truly innocent.

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