Ring Ring Ring Ooops



On Sunday 13th August the newspapers were full of a story of 3 Palestinian-Americans facing terrorist charges for being caught in possession of 1000 cellphones, which the authorities suspected were to be used for surveillance or as bomb detonators. The following day San Jose Police Department seize and impound a cellphone wired up to a battery and hidden in a San Jose hotel lobby. Little did they know, but they had stumbled across a genuine case of DIY surveillance. This cellphone was running custom-made software by art group 'Loca' as a part of the ZeroOne festival and was a part of a surveillance network covering the downtown area.

In 'Loca: Set To Discoverable' at the ZeroOne festival the Loca art group were able to track and communicate with the residents of San Jose via their cellphone without their permission or knowledge, so long as they have a Bluetooth device set to discoverable. Over 7 days more than two thousand people had been detected more than half a million (500,000) times, enabling the team to build up a detailed picture of their movements. People were sent messages from a stranger called Sly with intimate knowledge of their movements, written in such a way as to leave them unsure if they had not unwittingly joined a social network called Loca. The messages drew inferences based on the 'urban semantics' of the places they had been: “You were in a flower shop and spent 30 minutes in the park; are you in love?” Over the course of the week the messages became gradually more sinister, the would-be friend mutating into stalker, 'coffee later?' changing to 'r u ignoring me?'. The aim of Loca: Set To Discoverable was to enable people to question the networks they populate, and to consider how the trail of digital identities people leave behind them can be used for good or ill.

Each Loca 'node' consisted of a cellphone running custom made software, plus an additional battery so that the nodes could run independently for up to 5 days. Some were installed in concrete casings on lampposts, street signs and walls. Others were put in black plastic boxes in hotels, cafes, venues, cinemas and restaurants. They were hidden in flower pots, underneath a chaise longue, in the foot of the podium used by the cinema ticket collector, buried in the earth by a popular bar terrace. The project aims to raise ethical questions, not to be an irritant or prank, and permissions were obtained where appropriate.

One node had been placed behind some plants in the lobby of the Sainte Claire hotel in downtown San Jose. Permission had been obtained from the hotel management to place it there, but it was found on the last day of the project by staff who had not been informed. The police were called, and on arrival found a plain black box containing a cellphone, positioned in a way inconsistent with someone leaving their personal cellphone to charge. The device was taken away as a suspicious object and 'booked in evidence'.

When the artists arrived at the hotel to collect the device later that day, Monday 14th August, the hotel duty manager informed them of what had happened. They were given the Crime Reference number and directions to the police station, and headed out to talk to San Jose Police Department. The duty sargeant told them that items booked in evidence are returned after a case has gone to court and that they would have to wait until they had been proven guilty or innocent to retrieve it.

[...]'As far we we were concerned, the police confiscating one of the nodes was as much a part of the project as us climbing ladders strapping nodes to street lights, or people engaging with the messages or receiving a print out of their movements at the exhibition stand. We set out to be fully transparent with the police, to see what their response to the project would be, and to document this at every stage.' - Loca

The only thing the artists forgot to mention was that the cellphone was continuing to scan while it was being held at the police station, providing Loca with surveillance data on people's movements at the station, whether they be officers, criminals or the innocent.

Loca is a group project by John Evans (UK/Finland), Drew Hemment (UK), Theo Humphries (UK), Mike Raento (Finland).