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Oct 20

Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly

Tracking Hasan Elahi

Ethan Zuckerman just posted another amazing "alpha geek" data point supporting the emergence of the transparent society, David Brin's idea that the proper response to the inevitable surveillance society is to embrace it, making sure that surveillance is evenly distributed, rather than just in the hands of a few.

Ethan describes the work of Hasan Elahi, "a conceptual artist whose life is an ongoing work about surveillance." A few years back, Hasan was detained at Detroit Airport after the owners of a storage locker he rented in Florida reported (incorrectly) that an arab man (Hasan) had fled on September 12, 2001, leaving explosives in his locker. Hasan used online records to demonstrate his whereabouts, and the falsity of the claim. But that got him started...

He explains that the power dynamic of an FBI interview leads to a very human response - the desire for survival. Elahi says that he could have questioned the legality of the experience, hiring a lawyer… but he realized that there was the possibility that any act of resistance could have gotten him sent to Guantanamo.

For the next few months, every trip Elahi took, he’d call his FBI agent and give the routing, so he didn’t get detained along the way. He realized, after a point - why just tell the FBI - why not tell everyone?

So he hacked his cellphone into a tracking bracelet which he wears on his ankle, reporting his movements on a map - log onto his site and you can see that he’s in Camden. But he’s gone further, trying to document his life in a series of photos: the airports he passes through, the meals he eats, the bathrooms he uses. The result is a photographic record of his daily life which would be very hard to falsify. We all know photos can be digitally altered… but altering as many photos as Elahi puts online would require a whole team trying to build this alternative path through the world.

Whether or not Elahi's story is overstated (as Ethan says some people claim), his approach is still thought-provoking. We're all focused on the idea of hiding from surveillance. Hasan has instead embraced it, saying that documenting everything about his life is the best way of saying he has nothing to hide. Conceptual art indeed.

(For some other radar posts on the future of the surveillance society, see

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Michael Sparks   [10.22.06 09:34 AM]

... why not tell everyone?

One simple reason: whilst you may or may not trust your own country's public servants -- in this case the FBI -- do you really trust everyone online ? Not everyone in the world is trustworthy - consider that 0.13% of the UK's population is in prison does it make sense for me to publish for everyone when I'm not at home?

After all, in the past some particularly bright house burglers have done things as simple as phoning people's work phones to get answering messages to get an idea of when those people were away from their homes.

Kunal   [02.21.07 10:06 AM]

good idea, let's rob hasan elahi!!

Dave   [05.23.07 02:42 AM]

Reminds me of a home webcam someone set up to catch burgulars - the last picture the camera uploaded to the user's website - was a clear shot of the burglar! The use of the term lol is appropriate here.

Babu   [05.31.07 11:04 AM]

One thing is very funny as I see it. If our government is powerful enough to do surveillance, phone-tapping and what not to its own citizens, SHOULDN’T THEY ALSO KEEP THE POWER TO PROTECT THEM?? We were told that they are doing all these to protect us. No?

“In Orwellian nightmare the Big Brother is constantly watching. Some western airports installed x-ray cameras capable of mapping the undergarments, even tampons of women passengers. Here, it was not only a question of privacy but of human dignity. Indeed, privacy, liberty and dignity are related concepts. The Big Brother, in the present times, as some might say, is technology.” (

Shouldn’t the government spent some of that huge energy to actually protect us from say the burgles?

Liddy M.Hoffmann   [08.05.07 03:05 PM]

Well, after all the bad experience w/the USA goverment, the FBI, I don't blame him for what he's doing. Can you imagine how many ppl they are holding hostage in their concentration camps not only in Cuba but all over eastern Europe?
Somebody needs to stop the illegal kidnapping and imprisonment of innocent victims who happen to have similar names as the real culprits. Go and figure, america does'nt even have a real democrocy to begin with, so I think everything goes in this country, even reversed terrorrism by the USA on it's own citizens and other folks who live outside this country. They are under the mistaken impression, that they are the rulers of the entire earth I guess.
Anybody read 1984 yet?

Aisley   [01.14.08 04:41 PM]

It's not a surprise that this guy reacted this way, desperate people do desperate things. And by the way, I been wondering, if the reason for the prisioners in Guantanamo not getting trials in regular US courts is that Guantanamo is not US territory; does that means that Castro should be the one dealing with them? Huum!

eric   [01.14.08 04:53 PM]

After reading that story I also started taking digital photos of places I crapped, in case I need an alibi.

s. Bagensie   [01.14.08 06:46 PM]

Get off your soap box! You obviously have taken this way too far and should be charged by the FBI for taking up their time. Remember the next time the FBI stops a terror plot, we can only thank you for making their work load twice as large for this show of stupidity!

Robert   [01.14.08 06:54 PM]

It sounds like he's copying a british movie that was made in 2004 called "Freeze Frame", about a man who was falsely accused of murder and then started video taping his every move (including his sleep and trips to the bathroom) 24/7 to have as an alabi should anything like that befall him again.

Robert   [01.14.08 06:54 PM]

It sounds like he's copying a british movie that was made in 2004 called "Freeze Frame", about a man who was falsely accused of murder and then started video taping his every move (including his sleep and trips to the bathroom) 24/7 to have as an alabi should anything like that befall him again.

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