When we walk around this city, we bleed data—invisible pieces of information about us that companies can buy and sell; government officials can track; and your employers, friends, and enemies can manipulate at will. We know all this, but it’s hard to visualize just how much of our information is leaking out into the world. Enter The Glass Room, a stark art exhibition on Mulberry Street that serves as a chilling “investigation and intervention into our online lives,” now on view through December 18th.
Set up like a tech store, The Glass Room—spearheaded by the Berlin-based Tactical Technology Collective and Mozilla—features a variety of art pieces dedicated to visualizing how data is sourced from the unsuspecting public, and how sinister its use can be. One piece, “Online Shopping Center” by Sam Levigne, mimics Amazon’s ‘predictive shopping’ algorithm—which pre-purchases items for you based on patterns from your account and from others like you—by using a brain-scanner to predict what you’d like to purchase when you think about death.
Another piece, “Unfitbit,” by Surya Mattu and Tega Brain, finds ways to trick the FitBit device into thinking you’re active when you’re not—this was dreamed up after the artists realized health insurers could use FitBit data to determine how much to insure you for, and that employers who give their employees FitBits can see when their workers are at their desks, and for how long.
Then there’s “Smell Dating,” by Tega Brain and Sam Levigne, a dating service of sorts that drops swiping in favor of pheromones. Participants wear a white T-shirt for three days without washing it, then send it to the service—in return, they receive a selection of pre-worn T-shirts and pick dates based on which scents appeal to them (this is a real thing!) And “The Library of Missing Data Sets,” by Mimi Onuoha, visualizes “a list of data sets that are missing – datasets that do not exist, but should.” Offerings include Hillary Clinton’s 31,000 deleted personal emails, Donald Trump’s tax returns, and reasons for the existence of dark matter.
The art pieces are fun to play with, but things get scarier a little deeper into the exhibition. One section of The Glass Room features a series of real apps available on the market, like Sickweather, in which people who have colds or feel unwell can mark their locations to warn others walking by. There’s a tracker people can attach to their aging parents’ medication bottles to make sure they’re taking their pills each day. And there’s a section on the very controversial predictive policing, where visitors can play with algorithms that police departments all over the country use to proactively determine where crimes might take place, though some justice advocates believe these algorithms only amplify existing police bias.
The information you can peruse in The Glass Room isn’t necessarily new, but it’s presented in a way that’s more digestible for those of us who don’t usually deal in data. “When we talk about data, we don’t really know what we’re talking about,” Heinrik Chulu, a researcher with the Tactical Technology Collective, told Gothamist. “The goal here is to take the intangible nature of the Internet, and figure out how to understand the nuances and complexities of everything going on.” And the visualizations are helpful.
For instance, though we know the LinkNYC public wifi system makes it easier for the NYPD and/or other officials to tap into users’ web activity, Glass Room artists show just how much of (and how easily) that data is made available—they put up four antennae outside the show’s space on Mulberry Street, and visitors can watch data belonging to unsuspecting passersby ping on a big screen. “You can see the make of each phone, what wifi they’re connecting to,” Chulu pointed out, noting someone could track people with a laptop using the information available. “If you walk by a kiosk, they can see your phone and your network. They could track you around the city. If you know someone’s identifiers, you can ping them anytime they enter the room.”
But The Glass Room doesn’t just frighten you into trashing your cell phone and throwing your laptop out the window. It also attempts to offer solutions to help you cut back on some of that data you’re dribbling out all the time. Free workshops like “What The Facebook?” show you how much information you’re sharing to the public on social media, and how to cut back on it. Another, “De-Googlize Your Life,” will point out how much data you feed to Google on Gmail, Google Docs, Google search and other services, and how to minimize your trace (you can also take a look at your data shadow online). The Glass Room also hands out free 8-Day Data Detox Kits, which will help you determine which apps bleed less of your information, though it might cost you Twitter, Uber, and Google.
These tips might not be enough to get you off the grid, but it’s useful to know exactly how much of you is out there on the Interwebs, especially when facing whatever dystopian future awaits in the coming years.
The Glass Room is at 201 Mulberry Street through December 18th. The gallery is open from 12 to 8 p.m. daily, and is free to visit. You can visit their website at theglassroom.org.