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Sending a Message Through Privacy Art

In one of  Portlandia’s early episodes, “Bryce Shivers” and “Lisa Eversman” reveal how they spruce things up and make them pretty by putting birds on them. They even put a bird on a bird and get more than they bargained for when an actual bird makes an appearance—giving new meaning to deconstruction.

The clip reminded me of the protean definition of art. Is wrapping a building in cloth art? Put some cloth on it! Well, to some, yes. So without going into the classic, “what is art?” tangent, let’s just say that art means different things to different folks.

Which brings me to LinkedIn passwords.

You might remember that last year, the social networking site sustained a major privacy breach. At least 4.7 million passwords were leaked in June 2012. Here’s what The Verge published on this very ominous December-version of Friday the 13:

Millions of usernames and passwords were published online in one of the largest security breaches ever. But where LinkedIn saw a PR nightmare and users saw a security concern, conceptual artist Aram Bartholl saw art.

Forgot Your Password is a set of eight books containing some 4.7 million passwords that were leaked in June 2012. Visitors to the exhibit, which has toured Europe and is currently residing in Bartholl's native Germany, are invited to look through the volumes to see if their password is inside. Each password is arranged alphabetically and presented without its linked username(s). In addition to the books, Bartholl has also exhibited a pair of prints called Private Password, which contain 10,000 passwords each.

Hey, maybe your old password’s in there, too.

One user on the site commented, “That is dumb as hell. How is this considered art? It’s equivalent to a phone book.” Another, however, wrote, “It looks like the passwords have no context. It is nothing but passwords printed line by line in the book. Quite beautiful imo.”

And of course, context is a huge buzzword in the privacy community, thanks in part to the brilliant mind of Helen Nissenbaum.

Anyway, last summer, we hosted Navigate and brought in four amazing data artists to challenge our thinking of what privacy can mean. I’ve posted a couple of blog posts on each presenter and their fascinating work here, here and here.

For privacy pros, artistic expressions such as these can really challenge preconceived notions and help us think outside the box. With so many technological changes—not to mention the Snowden paradigm—the way we think about privacy is being challenged day-by-day, data point-by-data point.

I had the opportunity to visit the Modern Museum of Art in New York City last month and, of course, saw Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans” and Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” But what also stuck out to me was the work of Oscar Muñoz. One particular piece was called “The Game of Probabilities.” In this piece, fragments of photos from his own identity photographs (passports and driver’s licenses) from a wide range of years are woven together to create one image. As the museum's description noted, it “highlights the physical transformation of the artist, suggesting identity’s infinite mutations and the limitations of photography in representing human likeness.” Given the rise of facial recognition technology, this piece seems noteworthy.

If you’ve ever been to our offices, you’ve surely seen the Banksys and the Shephard Faireys and all the 1984 Big Brother references. Trevor, our president and CEO, has always been a champion of privacy art, and thanks to him, we are in the process of curating more privacy art. Here's some of the work throughout our office.


Shepard Fairey:

Photos in the IAPP office lobby, with fire extingisher:

And nearby:

You may have this in sticker form:

And this:

If you’re interested, check out the Gallery we’ve set up in our Resource Center. Some unique and creative images and concepts can be found in there. And we’re trying to expand it—with the artists’ permission of course!—so if you’re interested, check it out. More to come!

Here's a couple from the IAPP Art Gallery.

This is "Connections," by Nikki Rosato:

"Hiding in the City, Mobile Phone," by Lui Bolin, 2012:

"Look Number 2 Matrix," by Adam Harvey, 2012

Written By

Jedidiah Bracy, CIPP/E, CIPP/US


If you want to comment on this post, you need to login.

  • Christopher Wolf Dec 16, 2013

    Thanks for the insights into new ways to look at privacy, Jed!
  • Jedidiah Bracy Dec 16, 2013

    Thanks, Chris! 
  • Annie C. Bai Jan 28, 2014

    Adam Harvey's "Stealth Wear" is also thought-provoking: hoodies and burqua that are designed for countersurveillance, to block thermal imaging.  Would have been a good Christmas present if I had posted this comment earlier, right?!


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