You Want to Track Me? Here You Go, F.B.I.
By Hasan M. Elahi, October 29, 2011
ON June 19, 2002, I ran into a bit of a problem that turned my life upside down. It happened at the Detroit airport as I was entering the country. I realized something wasn’t right when the immigration agent at United States Customs slid my passport through the reader, then froze. “Is there something wrong?” I asked. He was still frozen. After a few moments, he said, “Follow me, please,” and I ended up at the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s airport office.
It was a large room filled with foreign-looking people, and fear was written on all their faces; this was their first day in the United States, and things were evidently not going well. Typically, there is little overlap between the I.N.S. and American citizens like me, and when I tried to find out from one of the agents what I was doing there, he seemed just as confused as I was.
Eventually, a man in a dark suit approached and said, “I expected you to be older.” I asked if he could please explain what was happening, and he said, “You have some explaining to do yourself.”
We then entered an interrogation room, barren and stark white with a camera in the corner. He sat across from me at an L-shaped desk and asked me to retrace the path I’d taken since I had left the United States. He asked me various detailed questions for a good half hour and then, out of nowhere, said, “Where were you September 12?”
Fortunately, I’m neurotic about record keeping. I had my Palm P.D.A. with me; I looked up Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2001 on my calendar. I read him the contents: “pay storage rent at 10; meeting with Judith at 10:30; intro class from 12 to 3; advanced class from 3 to 6.” We read about six months of my calendar appointments. I don’t think he was expecting me to have such detailed records.
He continued, “You had a storage unit in Tampa, right?”
“Yes, near the university.”
“What did you have in it?”
“Boxes of winter clothes, furniture I can’t fit in my apartment, some assorted junk and garage sale material.”
“I’m certain I didn’t have any explosives.”
“Well, we received a report that you had explosives and had fled on September 12.”
Given that I was very cooperative, and also had meticulous records that showed what I did when, I think he began to realize that whatever report he had was erroneous.
A few weeks later, a Justice Department official called my office in Tampa and said he wanted to speak to me about my interview in Detroit. He asked me to come to the Federal Building downtown, where he led me into a room where he and an F.B.I. agent interrogated me about where I’d been and when, and had I witnessed acts that might be detrimental to the interests of the United States or a foreign country, and had I ever met anyone from Al Qaeda, Islamic Jihad, Hamas or Hezbollah. The F.B.I. agent seemed to know quite remarkable details about things like the regular versus the Hezbollah bus routes in Beirut, and the person memorialized in the statue at the entrance of the American University there. His knowledge frightened me.
I COULD have contested the legality of the investigation and gotten a lawyer. But I thought that would make things messier. It was clear who had the power in this situation. And when you’re face to face with someone with so much power, you behave in an unusual manner. You dare not take any action. You rely on instincts and do what you need to survive. I told them everything.
The questioning went on for the next six months and ended with a series of polygraph examinations. I must have completed these to the agents’ satisfaction; eventually an interrogating agent told me that I had been cleared and that everything was fine and said that if I needed anything I should call him. I was planning to travel in the weeks ahead and was nervous about entering the country; I asked the agent about this, and he told me to call him with the information about my flights and said he would take care of everything.
Shortly after, I called the F.B.I. to report my whereabouts. I chose to. I wanted to make sure that the bureau knew that I wasn’t making any sudden moves and that I wasn’t running off somewhere. I wanted them to know where I was and what I was doing at any given time.
Soon I began to e-mail the F.B.I. I started to send longer e-mails, with pictures, and then with links to Web sites I made. I wrote some clunky code for my phone back in 2003 and turned it into a tracking device.
My thinking was something like, “You want to watch me? Fine. But I can watch myself better than you can, and I can get a level of detail that you will never have.”
In the process of compiling data about myself and supplying it to the F.B.I., I started thinking about what intelligence agents might not know about me. I created a list of every flight I’ve ever been on, since birth. For the more recent flights, I noted the exact flight numbers, recorded in my frequent flier accounts, and also photographs of the meals that I ate on each flight, as well as photos of each knife provided by each airline on each flight.
On my Web site, I compiled various databases that show the airports I’ve been in, food I’ve eaten at home, food I’ve eaten on the road, random hotel beds I’ve slept in, various parking lots off Interstate 80 that I parked in, empty train stations I saw, as well as very specific information like photos of the tacos I ate in Mexico City between July 5 and 7, and the toilets I used.
These images seem empty, and could be anywhere, but they’re not; they are extremely specific records of my exact travels to particular places. There are 46,000 images on my site. I trust that the F.B.I. has seen all of them. Agents know where I’ve bought my duck-flavored paste, or kimchi, laundry detergent and chitlins; because I told them everything.
I also provided screenshots of my financial data, communications records and transportation logs. Visitors to my site can cross-reference these records with my images in a way that’s similar to how the F.B.I. cross-references the very same databases. I provided information from third parties (including my bank, phone company, etc.) who can verify that I was at the locations indicated, on the dates and times specified on my Web site.
PEOPLE who visit my site — and my server logs indicate repeat visits from the Department of Homeland Security, the C.I.A., the National Reconnaissance Office and the Executive Office of the President — don’t find my information organized clearly. In fact, the interface I use is deliberately user-unfriendly. A lot of work is required to thread together the thousands of available points of information. By putting everything about me out there, I am simultaneously telling everything and nothing about my life. Despite the barrage of information about me that is publicly available, I live a surprisingly private and anonymous life.
In an era in which everything is archived and tracked, the best way to maintain privacy may be to give it up. Information agencies operate in an industry that values data. Restricted access to information is what makes it valuable. If I cut out the middleman and flood the market with my information, the intelligence the F.B.I. has on me will be of no value. Making my private information public devalues the currency of the information the intelligence gatherers have collected.
My activities may be more symbolic than not, but if 300 million people started sending private information to federal agents, the government would need to hire as many as another 300 million people, possibly more, to keep up with the information and we’d have to redesign our entire intelligence system.
East Germany tried this some decades back; it didn’t work out to be such a great plan for them. We have incredibly intelligent people and very sophisticated computer systems in various agencies in Washington, but the culture of these agencies prevents us from evolving beyond the cold-war-era mind-set. (There are people in Washington who still refer to China as “Red China.”) Fortunately, people in government have begun to see that collecting information is less useful than figuring out how to analyze it.
When I first started talking about my project in 2003, people thought I was insane. Why would anyone tell everyone what he was doing at all times? Why would anyone want to share a photo of every place he visited? Now eight years later, more than 800 million people do the same thing I’ve been doing each time they update their status or post an image or poke someone on Facebook. (Just to put this in perspective, if Facebook was a country, it would have the third highest population, after China and India.) Insane?
What I’m doing is no longer just an art project; creating our own archives has become so commonplace that we’re all — or at least hundreds of millions of us — doing it all the time. Whether we know it or not.
Hasan M. Elahi is an associate professor and an interdisciplinary artist at the University of Maryland. This article is adapted from a forthcoming TED Talk.
Photograph of Hasan Elahi’s location at 5:43 p.m. Oct. 26, as captured by satellite imagery.