It's the 10th anniversary of when visual artist Kyle McDonald set up a webcam app on Macs at an Apple store that sent mugshots of shoppers to an online gallery [archive.org].
Apple's response was overbearing and censorial, firing out legal nastygrams citing the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act to get Tumblr to take it all down. The Secret Service performed prosecutorial dirty work for Apple, interviewing McDonald like a terror suspect—alarming at the time, but ultimately comical after prosecutors declined to charge him and it all blew over.
To celebrate the decaversary, McDonald posted 100 pages of documents he got about the investigation through a Freedom of Information Act request and reposted his 8-year-old essay about the whole wrangle.
"It's still unclear why assistant US attorney Judith Philips declined to prosecute me," McDonald writes, adding that a recent Supreme Court ruling definitively put him and cases like his in the clear. "It's redacted as (b)(5) which means it's inter-agency communication. I wrote her to ask why but I'm not really expecting a response."
Apple's effort to have McDonald prosecuted as a hacker was especially inappropriate as he got permission to "film" (albeit with the lie of omission about which cameras he was using and when) in the glass-walled Apple store that anyone could see into.
It's reasonable to be annoyed at McDonald, all the same. Our reasonable expectation of privacy blooms beyond its legal margins. Who wants their slack-jawed mugshot to end up on tumblr? The rage people felt about McDonald's gallery—at the way new technology and false intimacy and ambiguous intent can denude us—was keenly and honestly felt.
In the years immediately after McDonald's art project, though, we were to find out about mass surveillance by the government and by private entities on an unprecedented scale. And despite overwhelming and years-long coverage, it was merely a wave in the water hoisting then gently lowering those reasonable expectations into the mire. All of it is normalized now, part of the background radiation filling our lives with paranoia and conspiracy.
There's a lesson here about shortcomings in media coverage of the NSA scandals and of surveillance disclosures in general. Looking back at these stories, I find much of it rendered in abstract, legalistic, lecturing language. It seems written for other media to read, not to impress upon readers that something bad had happened to them. The news wasn't placed in the context of people's lives, so its truth was captured by lies that were.
Sensationalist blips about a digital peeping tom in the Apple store, though, how that got the fury rolling.
(To suggest whistleblowers should go to the tabloids, though, is the wrong answer, because the tabloids will turn you in as soon as they run you dry.)
People Staring at Computers [kylemcdonald.net]