In 2013 Theresa May (the United Kingdom's Home Secretary) introduced the 'Draft Communications Data Bill'. The bill dubbed 'the snoopers charter' would see internet service providers forced to store details on internet browsing activity, similar to which the 'Data Retention Regulations' bill (introduced in 2014) requires the storage of telephone and email "contact data"3. The draft predictably created tension within the house of commons causing the government to split resulting in the then coalition Deputy Prime Minster Nick Clegg withdrawing his support publicly in 2013, affectively quashing the bill.
However in 2014 May declared that should the conservative government receive a majority she would push to make the bill legislation. This unfortunately happened. Re-introduced with slightly limited powers and the new name of 'Draft Investigatory Powers Bill' it demands the logging of ip addresses, urls and connection times for every individual in the United Kingdom. In this 293 page document May puts emphasis on how 'terrorists' are using the internet to evade detection and by using blanket surveillance they can help prevent this. Leaving you to wonder at what point does this ‘harmless’ surveillance become the precursor to something resembling a totalitarian state?
You probably live in Horsham is an art piece with a strong political theme. Designed to promote discussion around the data capturing techniques proposed by the charter. The plugin collects data discussed in the specification1 and attempts to figure out your personality and character, questioning what the government could know about you but also how safe your data is online. Including whether the mass collection of personal information could lead to becoming a victim of identity theft should this data reach the wrong hands, which could be likely considering David Cameron’s stance on data encryption4.
The visual spy-esk aesthetic in combination with the eye-opening report into the user’s mindset attempts to create a feeling of shock and awe while simultaneously creating a sense of slight unease. This leads you to question what kind of ‘paper trail’ you leave on the internet. But also, whether this identity is a perfect representation of how you see yourself offline compared to online. Today in our largely materialistic society many people’s life have become intertwined with the internet to such a degree it’s become hard to imagine the boundaries between virtual and real. I wish to prompt people to look at their lives from this perspective, by listing important elements of someones identity before them it becomes very de-humanising. You become another person on a piece of paper or in this case a computer screen. This separation in character allows you to step back a second and consider a completely different side to your identity that otherwise you may not have been able to see. This was my aim. To create a discussion piece similar to which James Bridle often creates, with pieces such as ‘Every Redaction’ and ‘Drone Shadow 008’6. I also took inspiration from Ai Weiwei a political artist who is inspired by his family imprisonment by the Chinese state. He constantly creates artwork that is censored by the government however uses this as pre-cursor to draw attention to important issues such as his piece that list of names of school children who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake7 something the government refused to do themselves and later took down.
An example entry encoded using JSON for readability.
While completing this task it’s imperative that the script does not interfere with the loading time of the page, therefore all calculations wherever possible are performed asynchronously. Alongside this it was essential for me to ensure that this plugin was safe in regards to the data collection and storage, considering this is what the application is largely about. Therefore all personal data derived using my application is stored locally in the chrome browser, only small elements (exc. ip address) as seen above are sent to remote servers which are run and secured by reputable companies (IBM) and sent via https with perfect ‘forward secrecy’5. In addition to this the categorisation of pages are disabled when visiting an https secured site.
The information I derived from the data above really is just the surface of what you could gather. I believe the paragraph above describes me pretty well. However it would be simple to describe myself, that’s why the explanation above was created by asking around 10 of my friends and fellow students to try to gather information about me by only reading the plugin-generated paragraph. I merely put everyone’s insights together. Therefore someone who doesn’t necessarily know you pretty well can gather a deep insight into your behaviour just from a small computer generated biography.
Throughout the process of creating this piece I’ve been amazed at the visual, mental and digital links between ourselves and what we do online. The multitudes of personas we display to various people across both our idealistic online lives and our more realistic real lives. The internet offers a small amount of escapism which I believe can often come across in my paragraphs. However I believe the small element of naivety that lurks in the furthest corner of our digital personality can in fact reveal the most innocent insight into our true personalities.
To help demonstrate the variant in the paragraphs created by ‘You probably live in Horsham’ I’ve added a few responses below, created by installing the plugin on friends’ computers.
(Please note the paragraphs above were created on a beta version of the plugin so lack some details such as work/university however the core functionality is the same).
Thank you for your interest. However, the plugin is no longer available.
1 Draft Investigatory Powers Bill: link (ironically delivered via https)
2 Draft Communications Data Bill: link
3 Data Retention Regulations: link
4 How has David Cameron caused a storm over encryption? link
5 Qualys SSL Server Test on my own server: Performed 11/12/15 link
6 Drone shadow 008: link
7 Ai Weiwei lists of children’s names: link