Conversnitch is a questionably-legal endeavor that falls somewhere between performance art and warrantless surveillance. As reported by Wired last month, it’s the brainchild of Kyle McDonald and Brian House. Essentially, they created a small, wireless listening device that could be installed in any standard light fixture. Then they placed a few of them in public spaces around New York City and set up a system to automatically tweet snippets of conversations the devices picked up.

Each wiretap consists of a Raspberry Pi, a microphone, and an LED, all housed in a plastic flowerpot. It can easily replace the business end of a small desk lamp, or hide inside a large overhead light fixture, without arousing much suspicion. Audio snippets are sent to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service for transcription by human ears and fingers, then broadcast on the Conversnitch twitter account.

Of course, McDonald and House don’t actually admit to installing any of these things without permission -- doing so might land them in legal trouble, and it would almost certainly creep some people out to know that a conversation held in a deserted park or empty corner of the library might not only be overheard by a stranger, but published online. But the pair say the project is meant to make people uncomfortable by highlighting how invasive digital surveillance can be -- and how easy implementation makes it increasingly pervasive, whether by individuals or by government agencies.

@conversnitch seems to have stopped updating on May 5th, but the code that powered the project is available at GitHub, so anyone willing to take some legal risks can copy the project. If you’re freaked out by this kind of surveillance technology, you may be interested in our roundup of digital surveillance countermeasures. But short of unscrewing every lightbulb in your vicinity, we don’t know of any defense against a lamp with hidden ears.

Related: Internet of Things Privacy Threats and Countermeasures


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