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Bringing the data privacy debate to the high street

Editor’s note: Concerns about the personal data we share online – wittingly or unwittingly – are growing rapidly. People are beginning to worry more about who has access to their personal data, what’s being done with it, what decisions are being made with it. But awareness is still relatively low, and while people profess being concerned about what’s happening to their personal data, most of us continue to share it and use the products and services which create and process it. Nesta is currently working with partners from across Europe on DECODE, a project which aims to give people more control over their personal data.

The Tactical Technology Collective, which was featured in our recent projects Me, my data and I and What next for digital social innovation?, has been working to raise awareness about personal data issues for over a decade. In this guest blog, Fiona Cullinan, a journalist who has been trained as an “Ingenius” by Tactical Tech, explains more about their work and The Glass Room, an exhibition which has been getting London talking about data over the past fortnight.

“It's a very friendly way of terrifying people,” is how one visitor described their experience of The Glass Room, a pop-up dystopian tech store on London's Charing Cross Road. “Now I want to go off the grid in a big way.”

The Glass Room, presented by Mozilla and curated by Tactical Technology Collective, is a sleek white space very much in the style of a high-tech gadget store. But the devices, gadgets and prototypes on plinths are not for sale. The 50 exhibits have all been supplied by artists, technologists and activists working in the field of data privacy and surveillance.

Unintended Emissions, for example, shows how our devices are constantly talking behind our backs by capturing the invisible emissions of mobile devices in the space and live-streaming them onto a large screen. On MegaPixels, you can find your digital doppelgänger on a facial recognition database, echoing police use of facial recognition software to try to identify individuals in public places. Elsewhere you can manipulate media headlines, see how the big five tech giants – Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft – are spending their money, or wonder why the former Head of the British Secret Intelligence Service is on the board of an iris scanning company.

Reactions to The Glass Room run from disquiet to paranoia but, once passers-by have had the chance to look into their online life, they are offered the chance to reclaim control of their digital identities at the Data Detox Bar, which sits at the heart of the exhibition. There is an 8-day Data Detox Kit to reduce data bloat, a schedule of talks and workshops, and a staff of 25 'Ingeniuses' on hand to help and advise – Tactical Tech’s latest batch of trained advocates who they hope will go out into the world and pay it forward through their own communities and networks.

I had first become concerned about data after Edward Snowden’s revelations of mass surveillance, but it was the Citizenfour documentary which propelled me to act. I started training in infosecurity and offering free help sessions in my local café to show others how to protect their data.

Two years later, I applied to become an Ingenius as part of a sabbatical to rethink my future. Thanks to the training, my conversations with hundreds of people about their data traces, and the existence of a portable version of The Glass Room, I’m aiming to bring their approach back to Birmingham. On 18 November, I’ll be holding a Data Detox Surgery at my husband’s exhibition Instructions for Humans, which reflects on the all-powerful role which algorithms, AI, data capture and surveillance have taken on in recent years.

The idea for The Glass Room came out of 'Nervous Systems – Quantified Life and the Social Question', an exhibition organised by Tactical Tech and held at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of World Cultures) in Berlin in 2016. Later that year, Tactical Tech teamed up with Mozilla to launch The Glass Room as a standalone project in New York. Occupying a storefront in the popular Nolita neighbourhood, 10,000 people visited The Glass Room New York. Now in London, that number has been beaten by half again in less than two weeks.

A Berlin-based non-profit organisation, founded in 2003 by Stephanie Hankey and Marek Tuszynski, Tactical Tech’s remit is to look at how technology impacts us – our civil liberties, rights, and autonomy.

Both Hankey and Tuszynski recognise that it is almost impossible to avoid leaving information trails behind us when we use digital technologies. To address the rise of the quantified society, they have spent the past two years developing The Glass Room – a new work “exploring the politics of living in a data-orientated society; what power dynamics are created, increasing transparency and raising awareness about how data will impact core freedoms and rights.

In Hankey’s words:

The Glass Room is where big data is displayed in a tangible and less abstract way. On the one hand, it is a personal experience, where you can playfully challenge your own relationship with the devices, websites and apps you use every day. On the other hand, it is a space to ask important questions about the issues we face as a society, such as right to privacy, disproportional power, and the data-driven economy. Everyone has a reason to care, but sometimes you just need to see something from a new perspective to do something about it.

Asking people to care about their digital footprint is one of the hardest sells, even when help and advice is freely available through organisations and charities such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Open Rights Groups and Privacy International. People rarely want to sacrifice the convenience of the digital world.

With The Glass Room, Tactical Tech has created a tangible reason to care, and provided tools for people to take action. It has put the intangibility of things like big data on display and created a tactile environment where anyone can come in off the street and gets hands-on with their own digital world. After that, it is left to the visitor to decide where they will draw the line in the battle between convenience and privacy, risk and reward.

The Glass Room is open 12-8pm every day until 12 November. Find out more at theglassroom.org.

Part of
DECODE