While the Ashley Madison scandal certainly publicized concerns with personal data on a massive scale—who owns it, who can access it, who can disseminate it—it’s far from the first time a security breach has occurred. When a third party gets ahold of your information, it’s a very abstract notion, and one that designer Martin Hertig wanted to make more concrete.
For the interactive installation Sensible Data, Hertig built a machine that processes and shares information, but in a theatrical way that makes it feel benign and even fun.
First, participants take a self-portrait using an iPad. A script transfers the image to a CNC drawing machine that sketches an illustration onto a card. The user then sends a blank email to an address Hertig set up that triggers the portrait to be processed on an online facial recognition site that uses an algorithm to judge his or her mood, age, gender, and beauty. This information is then stamped onto the card. Lastly, participants press a “dubious button” (actually an undisclosed fingerprint scanner) for the finishing touch. After the process is complete, the participant receives an email containing the information of another person who created a personal passport with the installation.
One key moment during the project’s inception was when Hertig read an article about Ingress, a game that logs every step a player does. “The author found it funny that people care about privacy, but if somebody provides a fun experience, then they don’t care as much anymore,” he says. “I found that very true. There is a paradox between wanting to share and on the other hand wanting something like privacy. Also, was I impressed with how little people cared about the discoveries of Edward Snowden. It must be partly because surveillance and data logging are very abstract topics. You don’t see what’s happening. This complex topic I wanted to make more tangible.”
Hertig hopes the project provokes discussion about how confident we as a population are with systems that are based on data. “Most people—including me—don’t really know what a system is and isn’t allowed to do with their data,” he says. “On the other side, there is the issue of confidence in the judgements of the systems. The ‘beauty score’ is based on some algorithms that compare your picture to a huge database of portraits of ugly and beautiful people. Imagine that similar algorithms are used for serious applications.”
Moreover, Hertig cautions that because of its inherent nature, digital data can be leaked or copied without permission. “Even if there would be transparency about what’s collected and how it’s used, there is always a possibility of abuse by a third party,” he says. “Maybe we should be creating alter egos for our online activities, learn about encrypted communication in school, or never do anything suspicious.”