April 24, 2014

Artists’ Device Discreetly Records, Tweets Conversations

Enid Burns for - Your Universe Online

Just when you thought you were safe to have a private conversation out in the open, two artists have created a device that works like a lamp and uses Wi-Fi to record and transmit snippets of conversations that are transcribed and then posted to Twitter on the artists' @conversnitch account.

The art project, called Conversnitch, was created by adjunct professor at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at the Tisch School of the Arts Kyle McDonald and Brian House, an adjunct professor at the Rhode Island School of Design. The device is constructed from a Raspberry Pi, a microphone, an LED light bulb and a plastic flowerpot, Wired's Andy Greenberg reports.

The flowerpot operates as housing for the device, which screws into any bulb socket and is intended to raise awareness that public and private spaces are not always so private.

“What does it mean to deploy one of these in a library, a public square, someone’s bedroom? What kind of power relationship does it set up?” House told Greenberg. “And what does this stream of tweets mean if it’s not set up by an artist but by the U.S. government?”

The tweets are in text form. Audio messages are sent to Amazon's Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing platform, for a small fee paid by House and McDonald, the audio is transcribed and then posted to the duo's Twitter account.

A video posted by McDonald shows someone installing this flowerpot-sized device in a number of locations, mostly public locations around New York City. Locations include a McDonalds, a bedroom, a bank lobby, a library and a lamppost in Manhattan's Washington Square Park.

This is not McDonald's first project that borders on the limits of privacy. McDonald briefly participated in a project called Chattrbot, Wired reports. While Chattrbot was a recording device that tweeted segments of conversation in a similar manner, the device obtained permission from the user.

McDonald also made headlines in 2011 when he installed a program on Apple Store computers that captured images of customers' faces and uploaded them to his server. Apple called the Secret Service to investigate. The agency used a search warrant for McDonald's apartment and confiscated two computers.