Nothing to Hide? Illusions of Privacy and Security at MIT

Last Friday I had the pleasure of speaking at the MIT Technology and Culture Forum’s event at the MIT Museum—Nothing to Hide? Illusions of Privacy and Security. As part of the museum’s Second Fridays, the event centered around an installation, a performance, and our talk following to discuss the themes in these pieces.

I really enjoyed watching people interact with the Please Empty Your Pockets by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer installation. The piece subverts security paradigms by turning the scanning process into something artistic and personal. People scanned everything from pocket change to wallets and cell phones, to IDs and pictures of themselves or their loved ones. Scanned items go in on a blank white conveyer belt, but they come out with digital traces piled around them from museum goers prior.

The piece touches on some of the themes I’ve been talking about lately about the hidden uses of data. The security scanner is a literal black box. People were willing to scan their credit card, with the number and name visible. We trust that the scanned images are only being used for the purposes of the exhibit, but we have no guarantee of that except for the description that states the memory contains 600,000 objects.

I was inspired to flip the model once more, scanning the scanner by turning on my front facing camera as I sent my iPhone down the track. I really like how it turned out as a record of the piece as experienced by my object. But it also served as a means of subverting the system, inserting my subjectivity in the face of an objectifying system. It allowed me to “see” the scanner and unobscured the inner workings of the black box.


Right next to the scanner was a performance of literal security theater, a Kafka-esque short play by the Underground Railway Theater about the hassles of airport security and the diversionary tactics of TSA agents. The customer only wants to know why she is being scanned, and what the agent finds so interesting, but she’s not given any details about the process. It’s an information asymmetry. We know they know something, but we don’t know what, exactly.

In the panel discussion with Catherine D’Ignazio, moderated by John Durant, I talked briefly about how these pieces touch on the theme of “Nothing to Hide?” by illustrating that we don’t always know what we’re hiding from. We’re interacting with black boxes. We understand and trust the scanner because we can only imagine the current context of the use of that information in the museum setting, just like we only think of our friends when we write a Facebook status update.

The curated evening also touched on what I wrote about in this piece for The Atlantic on our “Data Doppelgängers and the Uncanny Valley of Personalization.” Our concern with the creepy lies in the fact that something of ourselves, either our personal effects or our life history lives somewhere in the database. There’s an interest in seeing ourselves as the machine sees us, perhaps why so many were compelled to scan their likeness, their ID, their passport.

Audience questions centered around law and policy, citing the technology lag problem. I offered that those are only some of the levers of control we have as a society to assuage these concerns, citing Lawrence Lessig’s idea of laws, code, markets, and norms. I think the levers that need the most attention right now are market and norms. These are consumer driven demands. We won’t find companies competing on privacy and data practices until we ask for it and perhaps are willing to pay for it, as well. Neither will law reflect our represented desires unless we make it clear what our evolving norms. We’re starting to have those conversations, like this one and others elsewhere, so I’m optimistic.