The Glass Room Will Change the Way You Think About Privacy

Senior Writer

All of the convenience we gain from free apps, fitness trackers handed out by insurance companies and free online services come at the price of your privacy. That's the premise of The Glass Room, a digital-privacy art exhibition open in New York City until Sunday (Dec. 18). The Glass Room's artworks aim to wake up citizens to the privacy they've given away by blindly clicking on service agreement after service agreement.

Hitachi claims social media can be used to predict crime. Image: The Glass RoomHitachi claims social media can be used to predict crime. Image: The Glass Room

Tucked away in a pop-up shop space at 201 Mulberry St. in Manhattan's Soho neighborhood, The Glass Room has a stark, all-white interior filled with computer screens and works of art. The project is underwritten by Mozilla, the nonprofit firm that develops the Firefox browser, and produced by The Tactical Technology Collective, a nonprofit that has the stated goal of "working worldwide to demystify and promote technology in the context of activism."

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Glass Room staffers can guide you through each work to explain its message, but helpful placards sufficiently explain what you're seeing. If the room feels too clean and sterile, that's probably to unsettle users and provoke questions. As Radiohead's "Everything in Its Right Place" played softly on the PA, I thought to myself, "Yes, except for our data."

File tabs showing data kept from public disclosure. Image: Henry T. CaseyFile tabs showing data kept from public disclosure. Image: Henry T. Casey

The first thing you'll see when you enter The Glass Room is a book entitled "Where the F**k Was I?" by the Athens-based author and artist James Bridle. Each page contains a map containing heat marks, a date and a number, showing the location data stored by his iPhone from June 2010 to April 2011. It contains a total of 35,801 locations Bridle visited during that time, which ended when information-technology researchers Alasdair Allen and Pete Warden revealed that iPhones stored extensive geolocation logs.

Image: Henry T. CaseyImage: Henry T. Casey

Near the book was a displayed postcard that read, "Come Thru by Drake, Ariel's most played song in bed*." Following that asterisk to the bottom of the postcard, I saw a note: "Free music streaming services track data, all the way into Ariel [last name redacted] bedroom." That's the first of several reminders in the exhibition that anything free probably comes with loss of privacy.

To be fair, most of the pieces don't show their work -- they don't explain how a digital service could know the physical location of the person using it, the hardware in question or with whom your private data is shared. Furthermore, many services, such as the online-music streamer Spotify, have been happy to let you know that they watch what you're doing. Spotify's most recent ad campaign even highlighted that the service keeps track of its customers listening habits.

The passwords leaked in the 2012 hack of LinkedIn. Image: Henry T. CaseyThe passwords leaked in the 2012 hack of LinkedIn. Image: Henry T. Casey

A video piece called "Unfitbit," by Surya Mattu and Tega Brain, played next to a Fitbit attached to a metronome. The video showed people tricking fitness bands into recording physical activity by attaching the bands to pets and the wheels of automobiles.

The purpose, the piece stated, would be to deceive medical insurers who give fitness bands to customers and offer to discount premiums for those who exercise regularly. The video reminded the viewer that information transmitted by fitness bands could increase premium costs if insurance companies penalized users for sloth.

Image: The Glass RoomImage: The Glass Room

A tablet labelled Predictive Policing presented Hitachi's Visualization Predictive Crime Analytics, a tool that lets police see trouble coming a mile away by analyzing social-media postings. According to The Glass Room, the tool "increases accuracy by up to 15 percent, in particular because of a machine learning technology they teach to look for unusual phrases in what they identify as 'gang' social-media communications."

Perhaps one of the most timely works in the room, in light of the massive Yahoo data breach disclosed earlier this week, is Forgot Your Password, a series of books that contain every password unveiled in the LinkedIn data breach of 2012. (The full data set came to light only this year.) The book series' creator is Aram Bartholl, a Berlin-based conceptual artist who seemed to be getting his point across to visitors I saw poking through the books.

In 2010 and 2011, iPhones stored large batches of geolocations. Image: Henry T. CaseyIn 2010 and 2011, iPhones stored large batches of geolocations. Image: Henry T. Casey

Recycling passwords, as we always remind readers, is a bad move, no matter how long or strong your password may be. Unfortunately, when datasets from breaches are sold online, those passwords are usually packaged with their corresponding email addresses. So if you used the same password and email address for LinkedIn as you did for your online bank account, you'll lose control of both accounts.

Another artwork, "The Library of Missing Data Sets," by Mimi Onuoha, is a filing cabinet. Open it up, and you'll find a series of tabbed folders marked with types of information that aren't publicly available. Examples include "Publicly available gun trace data," "How often US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court meets," and "NSFW comments Trump made while filming 'The Apprentice.'" The piece is meant to show that while ordinary citizens have little control over our data after we hand it over, powerful people can decide what's made available or unavailable.

Image: Henry T. CaseyImage: Henry T. Casey

The Glass Room's off-the-beaten-path location and highbrow sensibilities may keep its message from spreading elsewhere, but it's a sign that Mozilla is dedicated to privacy. The company's Firefox web browser about 15 percent of desktop traffic worldwide, down from a peak of about 35 percent several years ago, but urging users to rethink how they surf the web could help increase that share.

Google's Chrome browser has nearly 60 percent of the global market. In that light, it couldn't help Firefox's chances if visitors see the quotation displayed on The Glass Room's video monitors. From Alphabet (Google's parent company) Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, it reads:

We know where you are.

We know where you've been.

We can more or less know

what you're thinking about.

That may be enough to make some people consider deleting their Google accounts. Just consider what might happen if all the personal details shared by users with various companies fell into the wrong hands.

If you make it to the back of The Glass Room, you'll be offered an 8-Day Data Detox kit -- a series of pamphlets instructing users on how to audit the data they share, change their settings, and make better decisions on the compromises made in the name of convenience. You can download a digital version here.