What does mass government surveillance look like? Munich artist Florian Freier found a way to visualize the doings of the National Security Agency and the German equivalent, the BND, using mundane, easy-to-access data.
His project, Cached Landscapes, is part of a contest hosted by the German art organization Frankfurter Kunstverein. Inspired by photographer Trevor Paglen’s photos of U.S. intelligence infrastructure, Frankfurter Kunstverein created a contest, asking artists to find ways to visually represent the data collection centers of the NSA and other spy operations in Germany. This is no easy task: as you’d imagine, these organizations are fiercely secretive, and the airspace above many of their sites is restricted.
Cached Landscapes has a simple premise: do to the NSA what the NSA does to us. Or at least try to. How? By exploiting browser caches.
Most of us have a vague understanding of our browser cache, which collects our web activity while we peruse the internet. The cache is like our browser’s working memory: it keeps data on hand so our computer doesn’t have to retrieve it all over again. The cache collects nearly everything we look at on a regular webpage, including photos. Freier took advantage of the cache to artistically visualize the locations of government surveillance.
It turns out that when our browsers cache a Google Earth satellite photo, they don’t grab the whole photo at once. Rather, they grab the smaller square photos that the larger image is composed of (you may have noticed these squares while trying to load a map over a slow connection). Freier found that when he looked at these square images in his cache that weren’t downloaded in order. Instead, they were all mixed up, resulting in what looked like an incorrectly reassembled puzzle of a satellite image. Freier thought that these scrambles were a perfect way to represent the locations where the government collects data.
Freier’s images of secret data collection centers have a lot in common with the data that the NSA collects: They appear nonsensical at first, but they actually contain some meaningful information about the appearance of these sites. What’s more, the sheer act of downloading satellite photos of spy bases could appear suspicious to the NSA, adding an element of real risk to the project.
The NSA defends its data collection, saying it only accesses data when it perceives a threat. We know from Edward Snowden’s leaks that this isn’t always the case. The NSA uncovered naked photos and passed them around the office for fun, and prominent officers sometimes spied on girlfriends and spouses. Freier turns the eye back onto the spies.