Chattr and NSA leaks at ISEA2013, Sydney


On the day Julian Assange addresses ISEA2013 in Sydney on the biggest leak in US history, the Lovely Veneer round table presented the Chattr project which investigates how far we will accept private conversations being captured and shared online, in exchange for a free service.

“Internet’s big names in battle to salvage reputations after NSA revelations” @Guardian

“This is like kissing whilst being watched. … after a while you don’t think about it anymore.” @Chattrleaks

This week we have seen the first serious cracks in the lovely veneer of the digital services which swap free and useful services for access to our personal data.

The NSA leaks by Edward Snowden prove something we already knew to be true, our every interaction in the online space is available to those with the technical and legal might to reach out and take it.

The conseqences are profound, and challenge many of our most cherished customs and institutions.

In the digital age our notions of privacy and self are transformed. The new default is Being Public, or Public Being. Here ‘public’ means open to everyone, on terms decided by an elite few – the terms and conditions of companies such as Facebook and Google, which can be changed at their whim.

The NSA revelations are the wake up moment when the veneer is peeled back and we see the new reality. Welcome to the #futr.

This is likely to generate among consumers what privacy campaigners call the chill effect. If Obama is embarrassed, we can only imagine the consternation of Eric Schmidt and Mark Zuckerberg. It could be the first series crack in the lovely veneer of the business model they have pioneered.

Chattr ( is an artwork and design experiment that investigates how far we will accept private conversations being captured and shared online in the design of new systems. We live in an always online world, and are growing accustomed to our online interactions being saved, stored, and sold by global online companies, in exchange for a free service.

In Chattr spoken conversations in public spaces during the FutureEverything conference were recorded, transcribed, and published as indelible text on the internet. The team observed users negotiate this ‘choice’, modulate their behaviour, play the system, or navigate and stretch the boundary between public and private.

Visitors to the FutureEverything cafe are presented with a choice of whether to participate in the Chattr lounge or not. They are asked if they agree to have their voices recorded, transcribed and published on the internet, and are then asked to accept a Data Use Policy. The cafe uses a colour tagging system to remind visitors of their choice. Only visitors who have accepted to have their voices recorded and published are allowed to access the Chattr lounge, offering comfortable social spaces, city views and other perks to participants.

Negotiating the permissions made visible the rule space in which we were operating – it was an artwork and research project, not commercial or government – to generate insights of wide relevance.

The goal was to provoke debate on these issues, and to enable reflection on the trade offs we make, what it means for our sense of self to have our intimate conversations recorded and shared, and what lies beneath the lovely veneer of online services.

This morning at ISEA2013 in Sydney we reported on some of the preliminary findings.

We found the project led people to reflect on the implications of technology (two people made the connection to GoogleGlass), the trade offs involved, the reputation of their pseudonym, and the experience of this project.

“This is like kissing whilst being watched. … after a while you don’t think about it anymore.” @Chattrleaks

“I think that’s the whole thing it’s the google glass discussion isn’t it and how we all respond to that … and the insidious way it just gets in there without you realising….” @Chattrleaks

“Well I think the thing that would frustrate me the most is that the version would come out with loads of spelling mistakes … and put my pseudonym to it!” @Chattrleaks

Behaviour changes observed included to stop speaking on a subject (following recollection they are being recorded), deliberately muffling voice, censoring swear words, speak in another language and gaming the system.

“I’ve got a Chattr going on by the way I probably ought to tell you, I’m being recorded.” @Chattrleaks

“I should state for the record that user 0268 is not having an affair [laughing] user 0268 does not have a guilty conscience and I do have a wife.” @Chattrleaks

“How is your Dutch?” @Chattrleaks

“I’ve been talking to the man from the cabinet office whilst being recorded … we started talking day jobs then we had to stop talking…” @Chattrleaks

Tellingly, two participants decided not to give up their data to Chattr, but reported they would do so with an online service because the branding and design generates that trust – the lovely veneer in full effect!

For decades new media artists have probed the correlation between a networked society and more intrusive surveillence – this is where the ‘weak signals’ of digital artists can be so valuable.

This has been a long standing interest of my own, from the Broken Channel exhibition of FutureEverything, writings such as Locative Dystopia in 2003, and the Loca: Set To Discoverable artwork presented at ISEA2006, which created a surrupticious city wide surveillance network in San Jose.

The Lovely Veneer round table at ISEA2013 in Sydney convened by Mel Woods looked at how good design can create the lovely veneer of seamless and fluid interfaces, and how this veneer can blind us to questions about the longevity and permeability of our self-documentation, and concerns about how our digital footprint is stored.

Chattr is a FutureEverything ( and Creative Exchange ( project by Ben Dalton, Drew Hemment, Mel Woods, Joel Porter, Lara Salinas, Joeli Brearley and Elliot Woods.

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