In 2002, artist and professor Hasan Elahi spent six months being interrogated off and on by the FBI as a suspected terrorist. In response to this experience, he created Tracking Transience, a website that makes his every move available to the FBI - and everybody else. Brooke talks to Elahi about the project.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: In 2002, artist and professor Hasan Elahi was detained at Detroit Metro Airport by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Somehow his passport had triggered some kind of terrorism alert, and he spent the next six months in and out of interrogation rooms, sharing every detail of his habits and movements which, as a compulsive record keeper, he had.
Thanks to that wealth of personal information at his fingertips, he was cleared, whereupon Elahi began Tracking Transience.net. He calls it an experiment in self-surveillance. Essentially, he inundates the FBI and the rest of the world with personal data. It's the ultimate in TMI. Hasan, welcome to On the Media.
HASAN ELAHI: Thank you for having me here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So tell me about your initial encounter with the INS.
HASAN ELAHI: It was absolutely something out of a movie. I, I come out of the airport. I hand my passport over to this guy, and he blanks and then takes me through this rat maze at the Detroit Airport, and I’m in a INS detention facility. And it was there I was met by an FBI agent. And the FBI agent asked me all sorts of details about who I was with, why I was there, who pays for my trips – every little detail. Then he asks me, out of nowhere,, where were you September 12th?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: 2001?
HASAN ELAHI: Exactly, yeah. This was – this was in June of 2002, so it was shortly after. They had received an erroneous report that an Arab man had fled on September 12th who was hoarding explosives. Now, never mind I'm not Arab, never mind it wasn’t the 12th, never mind there were no explosives there. But, you know, we’re going under this approach that well, if you have a Muslim name then you must be Arab, and if you’re Arab then you must have explosives.
I think he realized that I was no threat and let me go. He said, well, I’m gonna pass this onto the Tampa office. They’re the ones that initiated this. They’ll follow up with you, and we’ll get this cleared up.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you asked him for a letter stating that you weren't guilty of any crimes, but the FBI wouldn't give it to you.
HASAN ELAHI: I travel a lot and as an artist, you know, you go wherever there’s work. So I said to them, guys, all we need is the last guy at the last airport not to get the last memo, and here we go all over again.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why wouldn't he give it to you?
HASAN ELAHI: Well, the problem is in order to be formally cleared, you have to be formally charged. As Americans we tend to think that, you know, we have these rights and these proper legal procedures. But when it comes to terrorism and national security, frankly all that goes out the window.
And in this case, there was no law. So at that time they couldn't really issue a statement of any kind, so they said, “Well, you know what, if you get into trouble here's some phone numbers, give us a call . We’ll take care of it.”
I would call the FBI and I would tell them, hey, this is where I'm going, not – not because I had to but I chose to, just to make sure that everything was okay and everyone knew what I was doing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so you started with emailing the FBI. And then there were longer emails. And then you added pictures, and then you added links to websites you’d made.
HASAN ELAHI: So I started creating this little device that would share everything about me, every little detail. And, and then I basically turned my phone into a tracking device, into something similar to an ankle bracelet, so everyone – well, including the FBI, would know where I was at any given moment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And let's talk about the sort of stuff you sent. The airports you’d slept in, the food you'd eaten at home, the food you'd eaten on the road, random hotel beds you’d slept in, parking lots you’d parked in, photos of tacos you ate in Mexico City between July 5th and July 7th, pictures of the toilets you used. I mean, this had moved from ad infinitum to something approaching ad nauseam.
HASAN ELAHI: I've come to the realization, “Guys, you want to watch me, that's fine. I'm okay with that. But you know what? I can watch myself better than you guys ever could.” And that's what was really excited about this project, is that it really turns the surveillance upside down on its head.
Intelligence agencies, and it doesn't matter who they are, all operate in an industry where their currency is information and it’s the restricted access to the information that makes that information valuable. By me borrowing the simplest of all economics principles and flooding the market, the information that the FBI has about me has no value whatsoever.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is it because by offering so much they can't use it, or the scarcity issue - you know, diamonds are valuable because there aren't that many of them?
HASAN ELAHI: It's actually a little bit of both. I live an incredibly private and anonymous life because there is so much noise out there. So I – I’ve actually created this data camouflage, on one side. On the other side, yes, because there's so much better, again, it has no value.
Let's take a very pragmatic example. So on Facebook, when you have that one friend that only has four pictures of them, you go and look through all four of those pictures. But when they have 500, you don't bother looking at all 500.
And the thing is we're already doing this. When I first started this project, people thought I was crazy. But yet, now that you look at it, just Facebook alone has 800 million users. If that was a country, that would be the third largest country in the world, after China and India.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do you control the information? You don't edit it, it seems.
HASAN ELAHI: It's a very user-unfriendly interface. And it’s intentionally user unfriendly. And one of the reasons being is that I'm hoping that the viewer has to go through the role of playing the FBI agent and cross-referencing this database with that database, and in that detective work, coming to the realization, wait a minute, this could be me.
We’re in such an absurd age, the way we’re – we think of government surveillance, the way we think of wiretaps, and the only way you can really counter such an absurd system is by going even further absurd with this.
I mean, when you're looking at my photos and you're seeing all the toilets and all the food and all the beds, there is a sense of a sarcastic, comedic side to it, but, at the same time, I’m talking something incredibly serious.
And I think artists have a different level of agency, where we’re able to react to situations differently. Instead of actually fighting this, I can comply and maybe even to the point of aggressive compliance. And by doing that, it actually neutralizes this whole situation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And yet, you've written that your server logs indicate repeated visits from the Department of Homeland Security, the CIA, the National Reconnaissance Office and the Executive Office of the President. You have everything out there, so what are they looking for?
HASAN ELAHI: You know, this baffles me. And it's not just those. I mean, if it's a three-letter agency of some sort, they've shown up. Maybe it's just someone being curious, maybe it's just, hey, check out this guy that’s doing this wacky project.
But, on the other hand, what if it's not? The hits are frequent enough to make me concerned. It's hard to say you’re paranoid when you actually have proof that they indeed are watching.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hasan, thank you very much.
HASAN ELAHI: Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hasan Elahi is an associate professor and interdisciplinary artist at the University of Maryland.