July 3, 2017 08:00
"Looking after things" documenting a world under surveillance
As an artist with a background in software design, my primary focus has long been on investigating the relationship and interface between the ‘real’ embodied world and the virtual one. I’m interested in the way new technology paradigms are transforming our humanity and the social/psychological impact of living in a world of connected objects. I have been using art to explore the impact of the Internet of Things for a few years now. Last year I wrote here about a sculpture series I was working on called the Internet of Needy Things.
The Backdoored project
Since the start of 2016, I have been creating a visual document of our surveillance society.My work ‘Backdoored’ contains an ongoing archive of thousands of (in)security camera images from around the world. These images are the incidental output of security testing performed on connected devices (the Internet of Vulnerable Things).
This project began in January 2016, when a friend sent me an article that changed my life. The article described how images from personal security cameras around the world were publicly available and searchable online via new generation search engines for the Internet of Things. Although I’d been thinking about what it might mean to be surrounded by connected devices all recording and sharing data about us, I really hadn’t considered the IoT from the perspective of it being a searchable entity.
I did some initial research and here are a few of the images I found. I was amazed and shocked by their intimacy and strangeness.
So, how are these images generated? Specialist IoT security testing search engines send out their search-bots to crawl the internet looking for unsecured connected devices, and when they find an insecure device they collect metadata about it. In the case of these images, the insecure device is an IP webcam, and the bots actually use the webcam to take a screenshot - a souvenir of the moment of discovery. These images and information are added to the search engine’s database for their users to search.
These images seemed to me to be a very powerful way of triggering some discourse about the vulnerabilities and privacy implications of the IoT - something which didn’t seem to be being very widely discussed outside engineering circles, at the time at least. And of course the politics and control of imagery is a subject of vital interest from an artistic perspective. So I decided to start collecting and archiving these images, and the Backdoored project was born.
The Backdoored project is a collection of thousands of these surveillance images, which provides source material for my artistic research and my exhibitions. In summer 2016 I presented it in Tate Modern, and then a solo show in London, Backdoored.io where it generated significant media attention - and some controversy - in the UK and internationally.
|‘Backdoored.io’, solo show by Nye Thompson & curated by Kosha Hussain, Bank Gallery, London. Image credit: Geoff Titley.|
Self-surveillance and anxiety
Privacy and security awareness raising are key drivers for this project. However it is also interesting to consider the social drivers behind this contemporary obsession with self-surveillance. Although these images were generated originally for technical reasons, they also form a unique document of our times. They make up a global mapping of contemporary concerns and anxieties - objects and spaces that we feel need to be security-camera-watched 24 hours a day. These are anxieties which make us vulnerable to, even collaborators in, ever-more-extreme invasions of our privacies by governments and commercial organisations, and these are areas that I am continuing to explore.
I will be writing about my latest art installation from the Backdoored project: WorldViewPoint which explores the actual act of surveillance.
Artist turned software designer turned artist again.
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June 30, 2017 15:29
Great article Nye... It shows what a crazy world we live in where people live their lives through videos and images but don't think about the security repercussions of leaving their connections open for all to see.
July 17, 2017 15:16
Thanks @davecole glad you enjoyed it! It is crazy stuff isn't it? I think part of the issue is that these types of devices are sold as easy-to-use consumer products (the Apple effect) whereas in fact you need a relatively high degree of technical expertise to understand and use them safely.