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Artist opens up for privacy

In the fast-changing world of technology and surveillance, innovative artist Hasan Elahi is staying one step ahead of the game by “taking control” of his own data footprint. His concept is simple – track your own life so the government won’t.

Talking to a crowded auditorium in the Peters Business Building Thursday morning, Elahi warned students and professors alike about the “serious reality check” of network connections threatening privacy.

“The idea of privacy needs to change,” Elahi said. “We can’t use what we traditionally thought of as privacy in previous generations, or even currently, and expect that these same ideas will be held in future generations.”

Currently associate professor of art at University of Maryland, Elahi’s art installations are featured in exhibitions around the globe and recognized for their examination about both government policy and technology.

Elahi’s work has drawn media attention from the likes of The New York Times, Al Jazeera, The Colbert Report and TED Talks.

After being detained at the Detroit airport by the FBI in 2002 for suspicion of hoarding explosives, Elahi’s mindset about being monitored drastically changed. He said once you’re on the FBI’s list, it’s impossible to get off, spurring him to start his own “Tracking Transience” of his activity.

Ever since creating a tracker on his phone, Elahi has constantly “time-stamped” his life in moments to document the ultimate “alibi.”

While he said, “Ten years ago, people thought I was crazy,” Elahi emphasized that today everyone is doing it through their own social networking.

Elahi said we have all created a “digital body that’s floating around in space” being constantly monitored – even during times we think it isn’t.

“If any of you walk in the door and turn your lights on, the power company knows you just walked in,” Elahi said. “By the way, your water company knows what time you shower every day.”

Asserting that while the Internet doesn’t forget your online activity, Elahi believes you can “bury it” instead. By supplying constant imagery through “Tracking Transience,” Elahi creates what he calls digital noise that no one wants to filter.

“Really what I’m doing is telling you everything, and telling you nothing simultaneously,” Elahi said.

Rather than being interesting images, the stream of pictures that come through Elahi’s tracker are mostly mundane, such as airport lounges, toilet urinals or food in supermarkets.

Yet by providing such an in-depth commentary on his life, Elahi is able to camouflage information because a minimal amount is actually useable.

“By putting it all out there, I’m actually going to be living, and I actually do live a very anonymous and private life,” he said. “At a certain point, you’re like, ‘Look, I really don’t need to see anymore.”’

Amongst the audience was junior Alex Sheedy, who said Elahi’s talk was not only interesting, but also insightful. She said how we behave online is often “taken for granted.”

“It’s really eye-opening to think about the way the digital world really is,” Sheedy said. “It kind of freaked me out a little bit.”

Cautious about the unknown side of the technology and surveillance, Sheedy said people needed to be more aware about the issue.

“Things are going to start changing, and it’s really important we’re just educated about what’s going on,” she said.