PRISM: The Beacon Frame
Field of Study
Speculative Design; Narrative Design; Installation Art; Interaction Design
Since September 11th, 2001, the United States government has dramatically increased the ability of its intelligence agencies to collect and investigate information on both foreign subjects and US citizens. Some of these surveillance programs, including a secret program called PRISM, capture the private data of citizens who are not suspected of any connection to terrorism or any wrongdoing.
In June 2013, this plan was unveiled by a contractor formerly employed by the US National Security Agency (NSA) named Edward Snowden. Later on in the same month, a private contractor working for Booz Allen Hamilton leaked classified presentation slides that detailed the existence and the operations of PRISM: a mechanism that allows the government to collect user data from companies like Microsoft, Google, Apple, Yahoo, and others. While much of the program — and the rest of the NSA’s surveillance efforts — are still shrouded in secrecy, more details are coming to light as the public.
“PRISM: The Beacon Frame” will trying to express the disappointment at the disabling of a crucial element of this work at Transmediale 2014.The intention of this project, is to provide an opportunity for public to critically engage precisely the same methods of cellular communications interception used by certain governments against their own people and people in sovereign states.
It is vital that technology-based art remain a frame with which we can develop critical discourses about the world we live in, from the engineered to the cultural and political. Sometimes that requires that we are not limited by exaggerated fears and legal definition, but that we act proportionally and with conscience in our efforts to understand the power struggles and tensions in our (technically mediated) environment.Sometimes this means taking risks, risks without intention to harm but to engender wider critical insights.
The Critical Engineer considers the exploit to be the most desirable form of exposure.
PRISM: The Beacon Frame is a speculative, functional response to the general absence of information as to what NSA PRISM equipment actually looks like. Centered with the image of the prism, the project seeks to provide public direct contact with the aesthetics, technology and strategies used by states against their publics (and others), retained from critical contact by an opaque and coveted surveillance culture.
This work will be present in a exhibition room. There will be a screen to tell the audience what is happening to his/her mobile phone in real time – usually it is the progress the system is currently in trying to hijack into the mobile phone. And there will be a set of devices and tools being used to hijack, which is similar to the ones used in PRISM Surveillance Project. The audience, therefore, could feel distinctly how he/she is watched. As a result, the mobile phone that has been hijacked will received a SMS displaying that it has been hacked.
Organisation (Plan of Work)
This iteration of the project is a field deployable wireless surveillance and GSM interception unit comprising a robust tripod, large glass prism, nano computer, nano projector, GSM antenna and cellular communications base-station (also with computer).
It employs the same techniques of wireless (WiFi) device localisation and mapping, cell-tower hijacking and wireless packet inspection known to be in use by state sanctioned surveillance agencies such as the GCHQ (UK) and NSA (USA).
When activated, the computer scans for local cell towers owned by mobile service providers (Vodafone, o2, AT&T and so on), building a list of their unique properties. The prism then begins rotating and one by one each cell provider is impersonated by the PRISM tower. Activated mobile phones in the presence of the tower will hop onto the rogue network, ‘recognising’ its properties and believing it to be trustworthy.
At that point they are each sent SMSs of a troubling, humorous and/or sardonic nature. Data corresponding to these events are projected through the prism, in turn showered onto the walls in a rich and exploitative light show.
Audiences peering into the prism ‘see inside’ the internal workings of this intervention, from the unique ID of the phone intercepted to messages sent.
Projected onto a wall behind the tower structure is a data-rich, dynamic 2 dimensional map of all WiFi enabled devices in the vicinity of the installation. Typically comprising smart-phones, the location, unique ‘hardware fingerprint’ and hostname (“Tara’s iPhone”) are plotted on this map, updated with every movement by the owner of that device. Audiences in room with the Tower may note their friends approaching, merely by recognising their name on the map.