Hasan Elahi: FBI, here I am!
After he ended up on a watch list by accident, Hasan Elahi was advised by his local FBI agents to let them know when he was traveling. He did that and more ... much more.
In 2002, American artist Hasan Elahi’s name was added (by mistake) to the US government’s watch list.
Double-click the English transcript below to play the video.
Hi there. I'm Hasan. I'm an artist.
And usually when I tell people I'm an artist,
they just look at me and say, "Do you paint?"
or "What kind of medium do you work in?"
Well most of my work that I work with
is really a little bit about methodologies of working
rather than actually a specific discipline
or a specific technique.
So what I'm really interested in is creative problem solving.
And I had a little bit of a problem a few years ago.
So let me show you a little of that.
So it started over here.
And this is the Detroit airport in June 19th of 2002.
I was flying back to the U.S. from an exhibition overseas.
And as I was coming back,
well I was taken by the FBI, met by an FBI agent,
and went into a little room
and he asked me all sorts of questions --
"Where were you? What were you doing? Who were you talking with?
Why were you there? Who pays for your trips?" --
all these little details.
And then literally just out of nowhere,
the guy asks me, "Where were you September 12th?"
And when most of us get asked, "Where were you September 12th?"
or any date for that fact,
it's like, "I don't exactly remember, but I can look it up for you."
So I pulled out my little PDA,
and I said, "Okay, let's look up my appointments for September 12th."
I had September 12th -- from 10:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., I paid my storage bill.
From 10:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m., I met with Judith who was one of my graduate students at the time.
From 12:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m., I taught my intro class,
3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., I taught my advanced class.
"Where were you the 11th?" "Where were you the 10th?"
"Where were you the 29th? the 30th?"
"Where were you October 5th?"
We read about six months of my calendar.
And I don't think he was expecting me to have such detailed records
of what I did.
But good thing I did,
because I don't look good in orange.
So he asked me --
"So this storage unit that you paid the rent on,
what did you have in it?"
This was in Tampa, Florida,
so I was like, "Winter clothes that I have no use for in Florida.
Furniture that I can't fit in my ratty apartment.
Just assorted garage sale junk,
because I'm a pack rat."
And he looks at me really confused and says, "No explosives?"
I was like, "No, no. I'm pretty certain there were no explosives.
And if there were, I would have remembered that one."
And he's still a little confused,
but I think that anyone who talks to me for more than a couple of minutes
realizes I'm not exactly a terrorist threat.
And so we're sitting there,
and eventually after about an hour, hour and a half of just going back and forth,
he says, "Okay, I have enough information here.
I'm going to pass this onto the Tampa office. They're the ones who initiated this.
They'll follow up with you, and we'll take care of it."
I was like, "Great."
So I got home and the phone rings,
and a man introduced himself.
Basically this is the FBI offices in Tampa
where I spent six months of my life --
back and forth, not six months continuously.
By the way, you folks know that in the United States,
you can't take photographs of federal buildings,
but Google can do it for you.
So to the folks from Google, thank you.
So I spent a lot of time in this building.
"Have you ever witnessed or participated in any act
that may be detrimental to the United States or a foreign nation?"
And you also have to consider the state of mind you're in
when you're doing this.
You're basically face-to-face with someone
that essentially decides life or death.
Or questions such as -- actually, during the polygraph,
which was how it finally ended after nine consecutive of them --
one of the polygraph questions was ...
well the first one was, "Is your name Hasan?" "Yes."
"Are we in Florida?" "Yes." "Is today Tuesday?" "Yes."
Because you have to base it on a yes or no.
Then, of course, the next question is:
"Do you belong to any groups that wish to harm the United States?"
I work at a university.
So I was like, "Maybe you want to ask some of my colleagues that directly."
But they said, "Okay, aside from what we had discussed,
do you belong to any groups that wish to harm the United States?"
I was like, "No."
So at the end of six months of this
and nine consecutive polygraphs,
they said, "Hey, everything's fine."
I was like, "I know. That's what I've been trying to tell you guys all along.
I know everything's fine."
So they're looking at me really odd.
And it's like, "Guys, I travel a lot."
This is with the FBI.
And I was like, "All we need is Alaska not to get the last memo,
and here we go all over again."
And there was a sincere concern there.
And he was like, "You know, if you get into trouble,
give us a call -- we'll take care of it."
So ever since then, before I would go anywhere, I would call the FBI.
I would tell them, "Hey guys, this is where I'm going. This is my flight.
Northwest flight seven coming into Seattle
on March 12th" or whatever.
A couple weeks later, I'd call again, let them know.
It wasn't that I had to, but I chose to.
Just wanted to say, "Hey guys.
Don't want to make it look like I'm making any sudden moves."
"I don't want you guys to think that I'm about to flee.
Just letting you know. Heads up."
And so I just kept doing this over and over and over.
And then the phone calls turned into emails,
and the emails got longer and longer and longer ...
with travel tips.
Then I'd make websites.
And then I built this over here. Let me go back to it over here.
So I actually designed this back in 2003.
So this kind of tracks me at any given moment.
I wrote some code for my mobile phone.
Basically, what I decided is okay guys, you want to watch me, that's cool.
But I'll watch myself. It's okay.
You don't have to waste your energy or your resources.
And I'll help you out.
So in the process, I start thinking, well what else might they know about me?
Well they probably have all my flight records,
so I decided to put all my flight records from birth online.
So you can see, Delta 1252
going from Kansas City to Atlanta.
And then you see, these are some of the meals that I've been fed on the planes.
This was on Delta 719
going from JFK to San Francisco.
See that? They won't let me on a plane with that,
but they'll give it to me on the plane.
These are the airports that I hang out in,
because I like airports.
That's Kennedy airport, May 19th, Tuesday.
This is in Warsaw.
Singapore. You can see, they're kind of empty.
These images are shot really anonymously
to the point where it could be anyone.
But if you can cross-reference this with the other data,
then you're basically replaying the roll of the FBI agent
and putting it all together.
And when you're in a situation
where you have to justify every moment of your existence,
you're put in the situation where you react in a very different manner.
At the time that this was going on,
the last thing on my mind was "art project."
I was certainly not thinking, hey, I got new work here.
But after going through this, after realizing, well what just happened?
And after piecing together this, this and this,
this way of actually trying to figure out what happened for myself
eventually evolved into this,
and it actually became this project.
So these are the stores that I shop in -- some of them --
because they need to know.
This is me buying some duck flavored paste
at the Ranch 99 in Daly City
on Sunday, November 15th.
At Coreana Supermarket
buying my kimchi because I like kimchi.
And I bought some crabs too right around there,
and some chitlins at the Safeway in Emoryville.
And laundry too. Laundry detergent at West Oakland --
East Oakland, sorry.
And then my pickled jellyfish
at the Hong Kong Supermarket on Route 18 in East Brunswick.
Now if you go to my bank records,
it'll actually show something from there,
so you know that, on May 9th,
that I bought $14.79 in fuel from Safeway Vallejo.
So not only that I'm giving this information here and there,
but now there's a third party,
an independent third party, my bank,
that's verifying that, yes indeed, I was there at this time.
So there's points, and these points are actually being cross-referenced.
And there's a verification taking place.
Sometimes they're really small purchases.
So 34 cents foreign transaction fee.
All of these are extracted directly from my bank accounts,
and everything pops up right away.
Sometimes there's a lot of information.
This is exactly where my old apartment in San Francisco was.
And then sometimes you get this.
Sometimes you just get this, just an empty hallway in Salt Lake City,
And I can tell you exactly who I was with, where I was,
because this is what I had to do with the FBI.
I had to tell them every little detail of everything.
I spend a lot of time on the road.
This is a parking lot in Elko, Nevada
off of Route 80
at 8:01 p.m. on August 19th.
I spend a lot of time in gas stations too -- empty train stations.
So there's multiple databases.
And there's thousands and thousands and thousands of images.
There's actually 46,000 images right now on my site,
and the FBI has seen all of them --
at least I trust they've seen all of them.
And then sometimes you don't get much information at all,
you just get this empty bed.
And sometimes you get a lot of text information and no visual information.
So you get something like this.
This, by the way, is the location of my favorite sandwich shop in California --
So there's different categorizations
of meals eaten outside
empty train stations, empty gas stations.
These are some of the meals that I've been cooking at home.
So how do you know these are meals eaten at home?
Well the same plate shows up a whole bunch of times.
So again, you have to do some detective work here.
So sometimes the databases get so specific.
These are all tacos eaten in Mexico City
near a train station
on July fifth to July sixth.
At 11:39 a.m. was this one.
At 1:56 p.m. was this one. At 4:59 p.m. was this one.
So I time-stamp my life every few moments.
Every few moments I shoot the image.
Now it's all done on my iPhone,
and it all goes straight up to my server,
and my server does all the backend work
and categorizes things and puts everything together.
They need to know where I'm doing my business,
because they want to know about my business.
So on December 4th, I went here.
And on Sunday, June 14th at 2009 --
this was actually about two o'clock in the afternoon
in Skowhegan, Maine -- this was my apartment there.
So what you're basically seeing here
is all bits and pieces and all this information.
If you go to my site, there's tons of things.
And really, it's not the most user-friendly interface.
It's actually quite user-unfriendly.
And one of the reasons, also being part of the user-unfriendliness,
is that everything is there,
but you have to really work through it.
So by me putting all this information out there,
what I'm basically telling you is I'm telling you everything.
But in this barrage of noise
that I'm putting out,
I actually live an incredibly anonymous and private life.
And you know very little about me actually.
And really so I've come to the conclusion
that the way you protect your privacy,
particularly in an era where everything is cataloged
and everything is archived and everything is recorded,
there's no need to delete information anymore.
So what do you do when everything is out there?
Well you have to take control over it.
And if I give you this information directly,
it's a very different type of identity
than if you were to try to go through and try to get bits and pieces.
The other thing that's also interesting that's going on here
is the fact that intelligence agencies --
and it doesn't matter who they are --
they all operate in an industry
where their commodity is information,
or restricted access to information.
And the reason their information has any value
is, well, because no one else has access to it.
And by me cutting out the middle man
and giving it straight to you,
the information that the FBI has has no value,
so thus devaluing their currency.
And I understand that, on an individual level,
it's purely symbolic.
But if 300 million people in the U.S.
started doing this,
we would have to redesign the entire intelligence system
from the ground up.
Because it just wouldn't work if everybody was sharing everything.
And we're getting to that.
When I first started this project,
people were looking at me and saying,
"Why would you want to tell everybody what you're doing, where you're at?
Why are you posting these photos?"
This was an age before people were Tweeting everywhere
and 750 million people
were posting status messages
or poking people.
So in a way, I'm glad that I'm completely obsolete.
I'm still doing this project, but it is obsolete,
because you're all doing it.
This is something that we all are doing on a daily basis,
whether we're aware of it or not.
So we're creating our own archives and so on.
And you know, some of my friends have always said,
"Hey, you're just paranoid. Why are you doing this?
Because no one's really watching.
No one's really going to bother you."
So one of the things that I do
is I actually look through my server logs very carefully.
Because it's about surveillance.
I'm watching who's watching me.
And I came up with these.
So these are some of my sample logs.
And just little bits and pieces, and you can see some of the things there.
And I cleaned up the list a little bit so you can see.
So you can see that the Homeland Security likes to come by --
Department of Homeland Security.
You can see the National Security Agency likes to come by.
I actually moved very close to them. I live right down the street from them now.
Central Intelligence Agency.
Executive Office of the President.
Not really sure why they show up, but they do.
I think they kind of like to look at art.
And I'm glad that we have patrons of the arts in these fields.
So thank you very much. I appreciate it.
Bruno Giussani: Hasan, just curious.
You said, "Now everything automatically goes from my iPhone,"
but actually you do take the pictures and put on information.
So how many hours of the day does that take?
HE: Almost none.
It's no different
than sending a text.
It's no different than checking an email.
It's one of those things, we got by just fine before we had to do any of those.
So it's just become another day.
I mean, when we update a status message,
we don't really think about how long that's going to take.
So it's really just a matter of my phone clicking a couple of clicks,
send, and then it's done.
And everything's automated at the other end.
BG: On the day you are in a place where there is no coverage, the FBI gets crazy?
HE: Well it goes to the last point that I was at.
So it holds onto the very last point.
So if I'm on a 12-hour flight,
you'll see the last airport that I departed from.
BG: Hasan, thank you very much. (HE: Thank you.)
http://e-vid.net/v/en/1258-343 ▲Back to top About the Speaker: Hasan Elahi
In 2002, American artist Hasan Elahi’s name was added (by mistake) to the US government’s watch list.
Why you should listen
That led to an intensive investigation by the FBI. After months of interrogations, Elahi was finally cleared of suspicions but advised to keep the FBI informed of his whereabouts. Which he did -- fully, by opening up just about every aspect of his life to the public. What started with a practicality grew into an open-ended art project, with Elahi posting photos of his minute-by-minute life online (hotel rooms, airports, meals, receipts, bathrooms), tracking himself on Google Maps, releasing communication records, banking transactions and transportation logs, and more. The project questions the consequences of living under constant surveillance, and it has been presented at Centre Pompidou in Paris and at the Venice Biennale, among others. He is an associate professor of Art at University of Maryland, roughly equidistant from the CIA, FBI and NSA headquarters.
More profile about the speaker Hasan Elahi | Speaker | TED.com The original video on TED.com: