Countersurveillance

The project was a brief on the Decomputation elective, Royal College of Art, Nov 2014.

In collaboration with Joanne Harik.

“Design a set of practical counter-surveillance measures that
can be implemented at low cost, in different cultures, across
multiple scenarios.”

(Jon Fass, Decomputation elective brief extract 2014)

This project was a real challenge.  I had often been previously told that design that is ‘low cost’, for ‘different cultures’ and to be used ‘across multiple scenarios’ is impossible.  I was told that if you were trying to design for this you hadn’t written a good brief.  The conflict between the good advice I had previously been given and this brief pushed me to consider how I would personally approach this brief.

I have previously worked on issues of an individuals perception of online tracking, so I was very aware that issues of online security, identity and observation are often esoteric concepts to the lay user.  For this brief we were focussing on counter surveillance, and broadly this falls into three categories of user. First you have citizens of countries with totalitarian police states or national firewalls (e.g. North Korea or China), next you have political dissidents in destabilise countries (Egypt and Syria) and finally you have citizens in supposedly free Western states who are observed thanks to highly complex comms intelligence.

For this project we were lucky enough to have a visit from the Tactical Technology Collective. They work in empowering political dissidents when it comes to technology.  Increasingly, their work has shifted from enabling in the digital sphere into protection, especially were digital networking makes individuals very vulnerable.

It was with this background that we created a project that would allow communication through digital means by finding gaps between computer computation and between human computation (for a more full theoretical discussion of this space see Alan Turing’s Turing Test).  We designed a set of tools with a complete environment of communication that would allow these to disseminated and utilised efficiently.

Process

We started by thinking about what sorts of information we would like to communicate.  We selected warnings, arranging meet-ups and communicating instructions. These messages could be short enough for us to work with easily.  We explored areas around hidden messaging including digital messaging techniques such as leet speak.  The tools were developed relatively simply.  Some of the tools are simple processes that are not in themselves inherently designed interactions.  We realised that in the development of tools and processes there would be a need for these things to get the user without the user logging onto a website to find them.  We developed analogue methods for the dissemination based around everyday places and objects.

Response

Tools

1. Filming text so that rather than an easily readable text document it is a video that avoids most OCR technologies and also would be much larger to store for security services than a text file.

2. Filming yourself saying your message.  Overlay it with other videos so that your face and message can only be read by someone who knows your face and voice and can recognise it amongst the babble

3. Moving documents around on the scanner bed as you scan them so that the text is distorted or organically redacted allowing discreet communication that avoids OCR.

4. An applet that uses a matching document at both ends of communication but the message in between is the location of words on a page rather than the words themselves.

Manifesto

We wrote a manifesto to represent our thinking and to also present ourselves in the physical space before our dissemination.

Dissemination

Printing on the back of receipts, tags in clothing shops, inserts in free newspapers and slips folded into paper towels in toilets and other places. These instructions for our tools would show up in places where the manifesto has been allowing an underground movement to start-up.

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