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Transmediale Festival Shuts Down NSA Imitators

by Ellen Pearlman on February 19, 2014

Simulation of smartphone information of Angela Merkel - all photos copyright the artists

Screenshot of Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev’s “PRISM: The Beacon Frame” (2013) (via Vimeo)

Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev, two artists participating in Berlin’s Transmediale 2014 (January 29–February 2), had an artwork summarily disabled at the festival last month because the piece uses the same technology as the National Security Agency (NSA) to hijack cell phone information. The technical network contractor for the festival received an anonymous complaint regarding the piece, “PRISM: The Beacon Frame,” and threatened to call the German Federal Network Agency for Electricity, Gas, Telecommunications, Post and Railway for violation of data privacy and frequency assignment laws if “PRISM” remained active. “It’s a federal offense to run your own unlicensed base station in Germany,” Oliver explained in a post to the Yahoo User Group “Art and Security.” He went on to say that the technical and festival directors convened a meeting with the artists, who were told that if the police came, Transmediale would be unable to offer them legal protection from prosecution by the German authorities. The penalties for violation included stiff fines and jail time. The artists, left with no choice, kept their piece disabled.

“PRISM” was part of Transmediale’s innovative Art Hack Day approach to putting on the festival. Ninety artists from around the world were invited to create original works in just two days and nights based on the theme of “Afterglow,” the phenomenon whereby dust suspended in the earth’s stratosphere captures the sun’s rays during sunset. During the opening ceremony, Oliver and Vasiliev fully disclosed what they were up to, then proceeded to hijack the cellular connections of approximately 740 attendees’ phones.

Military grade casing containing equipment

Oliver and Vasiliev’s military-grade case containing equipment (via julianoliver.com)

The pair used a military-grade case containing a portable GNU/Linux computer, a wireless adapter that enabled localization mapping and cell-tower hijacking, and a wireless packet inspection of mobile service providers like Vodafone, O2, AT&T and others: the same state-sanctioned technologies that the GCHQ (UK) and the NSA (USA) deploy. A SMS message was sent to each hijacked device via the rogue network, saying, “Welcome to your new NSA partner network,” with a link to the artists’ “PRISM” project (a play on the NSA program of the same name). Simultaneously, a real-time packet log consisting of the protocol message, username, hostname, and IP address was projected onto a rotating glass prism and reflected on the gallery wall, replete with ominous and frightening technological blips and alarms. The display allowed audiences to witness the internal workings of phone intercepts splashing all over the walls. Coincidentally, the exhibit took place right next door to the German parliament, whose own members have been the object of NSA-sponsored phone hackings.

Welcome to the NSA partner network messages on hijacked phones

“Welcome to the NSA partner network” messages showing up on hijacked phones (via criticalengineering.org)

After the shutdown, Oliver and Vasiliev issued a statement that says, in part:

It was our intention to provide an opportunity for the public to critically engage precisely the same methods of cellular communications interception used by certain governments against their own people and people in sovereign states. It was not, in any way, our intention to harm anyone, nor did we. … It is vital that technology-based art remain a frame with which we can develop critical discourses about the world we live in, from the engineered to the cultural and political. Sometimes that requires that we are not limited by exaggerated fears and legal definition, but that we act proportionally and with conscience in our efforts to understand the power struggles and tensions in our (technically mediated) environment.

The statement was displayed next to the disabled piece for the rest of the festival.

In the wake of the censorship, Art Hack Day founder Olof Mathé commented that the incident “brings back unpleasant memories of absurdly draconian penalties for ‘computer’-related crimes, as was the case with Jeremy Hammond and the late Aaron Schwartz.” Mathé went on to ask vital questions about the control and manipulation of technological infrastructures and how public debate around these questions can be facilitated. “How can we encourage critical inquiry into our technologically mediated environment if not through works like ‘PRISM: The Beacon Frame’?” he wrote.

Finally, on February 10, Transmediale issued an official statement, which reads like a rebuttal of sorts. It says, in part:

Our technical partner for the festival did not act out of disagreement with the basic premise of the work, but out of the possibility of being held legally accountable for its possible violation of privacy rights and frequency regulation. The disablement of the work, however, was an act done without any authorization from the festival director or the other curators, administration and communication department. … As others have already pointed out, it is absurd that this work would even risk being reported in these times of highly illegal surveillance operations carried out by governments on entire populations.

Rotating prisms reflecting users' data onto the wall (via criticalengineering.org)

Rotating prisms reflecting users’ data onto the wall (via criticalengineering.org)

Despite the shutdown, Transmediale continued to explore critical issues concerning privacy and surveillance. One of their panels, “Art as Evidence,” featured Berlin-based filmmaker Laura Poitras, who achieved recent fame for her work with Edward Snowden and is currently completing a three-part documentary about post-9/11 America. She was joined by independent computer security researcher and hacker Jacob Appelbaum, as well as New York–based artist Trevor Paglen, whose collaboration with Creative Time and Glen Greenwald’s The Intercept had him taking nighttime flyover pictures of the NSA and other facilities. Germany, because of its ultra-strict privacy laws, seems an apt place to convene the annual festival, although this year it ended up both defending the creative outputs of Poitras and Paglen and disabling those of Oliver and Vasiliev.

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