The Walls Have Eyes

The Walls Have Eyes was a sort of digital performance installation at last year’s Mozilla Festival (Mozfest) in London. It was developed by the BBC’s research and development wing and was one of several surveillance-based projects integrated with the Ethical Dilemma Cafe workshop and lounge space.

The Ethical Dilemma Cafe was a brick-and-mortar send-up of the End User License Agreements we all automatically click past when installing any new piece of software. A set of handwritten terms posted by the entrance made it clear that by walking into the cafe, Mozfest attendees were giving up their right to privacy, to control of their own data, and to ownership of all information created or exchanged in the space. In return, the cafe offered free smoothies and popcorn; very few people balked at the tradeoff.

One of the ways patron were surveilled was through The Walls Have Eyes -- technically a misnomer, since the installation relied on picture frames to hide its spy gear. Each frame contained a Raspberry Pi with two Wi-Fi cards, a camera and a USB battery pack. One Wi-Fi card scanned for MAC addresses, the unique numerical tags that identify a particular device like a cell phone, tablet or laptop on a network. Meanwhile the camera snapped surreptitious photos, and the second Wi-Fi card transmitted the images and MAC data to a “hub” Pi hosting a private local network.

A refurbished dot-matrix printer noisily converted the photos and addresses into ASCII pictures -- reams and reams of them, spilling from a balcony onto the ground floor. Cafe managers hung some of the printouts from clotheslines above the tables as a visual reminder of the constant, automatic churn of data collected about the patrons (the organizers called it “airing their dirty data”).

Wifi MAC Tracking: The Walls Have Eyes

In most everyday settings, like stores and coffeeshops, MAC address tracking is usually invisible but no less constant than it was in the Ethical Dilemma Cafe. Our devices exchange the identifiers passively with nearby access points, which is necessary in order to discover and connect to Wi-Fi networks. But what happens to the data then is an open question.

Many retailers and advertisers have realized that MAC addresses provide a fairly reliable way to track individual customers, opening the possibility of targeted, location-based messages and offers. But the idea of marketers following their every move often makes consumers uncomfortable. Last year London had to stop an advertising company from conducting MAC address tracking with digital billboards attached to curbside recycling bins, after a public outcry.

Data collected at the Ethical Dilemma Cafe was always obfuscated, kept to a local private network, and deleted when Mozfest ended. But in the real world, the dilemma persists: How much access are we willing to give third parties to our devices and data, and what are we willing to accept in return?

You can view more details and dig into the operating code on the project's Github page.

Related: IoT Privacy Threats & Countermeasures

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