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. In a segment that originally aired in November of 2011, Brooke talks to Elahi about the project.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And now we move from what may be too much information to what definitely is too much information - by design. In 2002, artist and professor, Hasan Elahi, was detained at Detroit Metro Airport by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Somehow his passport had triggered a terrorism alert, and he spent the next six months in and out of interrogation rooms, sharing every detail of his life which, as a compulsive record keeper, he had.
Thanks to that wealth of personal information, 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 his personal data. When I spoke to him in 2011, I asked him to start by telling me what happened when he got off that airplane at Detroit Metro.
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 blinks 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: Two-thousand one (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 he 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 because I had to but I chose to. I started creating this little device that would share everything about me, and then, 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. 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.
HASAN ELAHI: I have 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 exciting 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. There are so many different databases that go up there, 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.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And then what are you supposed to conclude?
HASAN ELAHI: Hopefully, we’ll come to the idea that we’re in such an absurd age, the way 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 sarcastic, comedic side to it but, at the same time, I’m talking about something incredibly serious. 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. 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.
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BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman, Chris Neary and Doug Anderson, with more help from Khrista Rypl and Annie Russell. And it was edited - by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Ken Feldman.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Ellen Horne is WNYC’s senior director of National Programs. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. [WHISPERING But don’t tell anybody.