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Before Protesting at the Republican National Convention, Learn to Protect Your Phone

SPACES visitors making signal-blocking cell-phone pouches under the guidance of artist Tim Schwartz (all images courtesy Tim Schwartz)
SPACES visitors making signal-blocking cell-phone pouches under the guidance of artist Tim Schwartz (all images courtesy Tim Schwartz)

CLEVELAND — If you’re a smartphone-wielding protestor in Cleveland this week, you might want to make a pit stop at SPACES on your way downtown to the Republican National Convention (RNC). At the gallery, Los Angeles–based artist Tim Schwartz will be holding drop-in “office hours” from 1 to 4pm every day of the convention, offering free cell-phone privacy and security audits to anyone who’s interested. The audit includes an overview of the basic levels of protection needed to minimize the digital footprint transmitted from your phone, plus lessons in how to encrypt email data and otherwise communicate securely. Schwartz will also help attendees create signal-blocking pouches to carry their cell phones, so that protestors can move without being (digitally) tracked. Berlin-based artist Aram Bartholl came up with the pouch design in 2014 and built a website to distribute the DIY instructions. Schwartz will have the necessary materials on hand — including a sewing machine — for participants to make their own pouches, which prevent the phones inside them from sending or receiving signals.

“At a base level, cell phones are great because we can document what is going on around us, and frankly, they are good to have on hand for back-up, in case we need to call someone,” says Schwartz. “At the same time, cell phones can be a real hazard because they are connected to our digital lives, and they leave a record at nearby cell towers showing that you were there. All of this information can eventually be used against you.”

A homemade signal-blocking cell-phone pouch (photo by Taze)
A homemade signal-blocking cell-phone pouch (photo by Taze)

Schwartz’s solution to this problem is to develop art projects and workshops that educate people about digital security. He’s part of a decentralized global effort called CryptoParty, which is dedicated to raising awareness about digital privacy. Increasingly, the data that we transmit via networks established by corporate entities (i.e. Google, AT&T, the Apple product you’re probably using to read this) is owned by those companies, thanks to the user agreements we all agree to as soon as we log on. This corporate control of our data is so ubiquitous and discreet that we’re usually not even aware of it. As Schwartz told me, “There is a huge gulf between the technology available out there for protection and how to actually get to it. My goal is to close that gap with education and art, making it more accessible.” Members of the CryptoParty movement hold “office hours” around the world in an attempt to empower people to take control of our digital signatures and subvert corporate ownership of our online activities. Workshops offer the basic privacy audit that Schwartz will provide during the RNC, alongside more mysterious activities like a “dark web treasure hunt.”

Schwartz’s RNC workshops will kick off his six-week residency at SPACES, where he will produce a project that investigates how we wear our data, perform it, and live it — everything from our tweets to the directions we search for on Google Maps to the very timbres of our voices when we ask Siri to check our messages. In Cryptotherapy, a recent installation at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, Schwartz used simple search techniques to track the digital trails of web users associated with the museum and projected this data (with names and numbers obscured) on the exterior of the building for all to see. The installation exposed the depths of personal information we willingly provide to companies online every day, and the ease with which someone else can access it. For his exhibition at SPACES, he will again invade the data trails left behind by locals to make a performance work that exposes how our digital footprint is mapped to our bodies. Such a visualization gives viewers an access point to reflect on how their on- and offline selves are connected, and how others might view them in a digital context.

A SPACES visitor making a signal-blocking cell-phone pouch under the guidance of artist Tim Schwartz (click to enlarge)
A SPACES visitor making a signal-blocking cell-phone pouch under the guidance of artist Tim Schwartz (click to enlarge)

“At this point, only the techno-elite can take part in privacy,” says Schwartz. “We need to change the education. You can’t choose your privacy level unless you understand the levels of privacy available to you, and how to attain them.” This week, during the Republican National Convention, Schwartz will try to make this knowledge attainable for all, no prior experience necessary. Stop by SPACES before you set foot on the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge, and Tim Schwartz will help you march without a digital trace. 

Tim Schwartz will be conducting “Cell Phone Safe” digital footprint audits at SPACES (2220 Superior Viaduct, Cleveland) on July 19 and 20, from 1 to 4pm.

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