What is personal data in an age where data is everything but personal?
That’s the question posed by The Glass Room, a pop-up interactive exhibition of artists, activists and technologists on London’s Charing Cross Road that runs until Sunday.
Put on by Berlin-based non-profit Tactical Tech and Mozilla, the non-for-profit behind the Firefox web browser, it aims to reveal some of the all-too-easily overlooked dynamics of living in a digital age.
Take Aram Bartholl’s Forgot Your Password, which makes art out of the 4.7 million LinkedIn passwords hacked in 2012, housing them in eight fat hardback volumes for visitors to The Glass Room to browse.
Thankfully for those concerned the pages only replicate the passwords and not any other information, though the amount of people using ‘password’ or a variant of it isn’t inspiring.
As befits the flood of data we produce, there’s a lot to take in despite The Glass Room’s relatively compact staging.
Exhibits related to some of my health technology writing include Unfit Bits, which sees Tega Brain and Surya Mattu take aim at the popular fitness tracking company, noting ‘the information Fitbit collects about you is not only valuable to you alone’.
The exhibit itself looks to undermine the pressure to always be active with ‘Unfit Bits’, which sees Fitbits clipped to aids such as a metronome, a drill and a pendulum, all to ‘generate valuable fitness data without lifting a finger’.
There’s also a not entirely complimentary namecheck for Pfizer and its 2015 deal with the Google-backed genetic testing firm 23andMe.
As the organisers note: “Such collaborations may indeed lead to the next big cure or miracle drug, but they also can lead to huge profits for a host of other companies”
Some could well argue the next big cure or a (genuine) miracle drug wouldn’t be a bad trade-off, but its point about how carelessly we accept terms and conditions bears repeating.
And the exhibition does just that with works such as the rather self-explanatory How Long Does It Take to Read Amazon Kindle’s Terms and Conditions. Though I felt Australian consumer advocacy group Choice had made their point without my having to watch their nine-hour video of a man in a bath working his way through Amazon’s 73,198 words
Elsewhere exhibits range from the useful (Silver Mother’s remote monitoring of elderly relatives) to the more sinister, such as Texas Virtual BorderWatch which allows the public to log in to live feeds from border cameras and sensors and report illegal activity.
It certainly outlines just part of the dizzying array of rights we hand over without a second thought to the likes of Facebook, Transport for London, Starbucks and even the National History Museum.
But there’s little balance with what users and society gains from ‘payment by data’, Unfit Bits in particular seeming to spectacularly miss the point when it comes to the need for people to take more exercise.
It certainly succeeds as a polemic, but ultimately The Glass Room poses more questions than it does answers.